Exploring Genre through the text “Chrissie Venn”

Today I worked with my class to explore genre using the harrowing true story of Chrissie Venn. I started by offering some background about the real life murder of the little 13 year old girl, Chrissie, in the Tasmanian town of North Motton, in 1921. The murder case was so poorly handled that nobody was ever convicted, and it remains an unsolved case to this day. A book was published in 2000 which explored elements of the case and told Chrissie’s story. That book only had a small print run, and my sister Fiona managed to get a copy through advertising in the paper, after her curiosity was piqued when hearing all about the tale. Indeed, there are many myths, legends, rumours and innuendos that have circulated throughout Tasmania about the death, the court case, and the suicide of the man who was originally accused but then acquitted. I read my students the following summary I wrote of the tale:

On Saturday the 26th February 1921, Chrissie Clare Venn was cruelly and brutally murdered at the once quiet and peaceful hamlet of North Motton.

The body was found on Allison Road, by the farm of John Hearps Sr. The appearance of the body showed unmistakable signs that a violent murder had been committed. The bodice of her white muslin dress had been ripped and shoved into her throat. Dr Ferris, who made the post-mortem, gave evidence that Chrissie suffocated from the gag in her mouth, placed there by her attacker, when she had uttered the piercing scream which was heard by the two young Hearps boys while ploughing in the farm some distance away. The scream not being repeated, no aid came to the unfortunate girl, who met with dishonour and then death after which the body was hauled into a gigantic hollowed out stump in the lonely and secluded site of the crime.

No one has ever been found guilty of the crime.

Hostility surrounds this murder and for over 80 years since the trial, nobody has spoken “on the record” of her murder.

Mr King, a pig farmer who had originally been convicted of the murder, was acquitted, but was said to have committed suicide some years later.

It turned out that one student in the class had actually been to the murder site, as it is customary for young people to engage in a ritual of visiting the site at night, t0 do a lap of the hollow stump in which she Chrissie’s dismembered body was buried. This has led, as the book attests, to “a fascinating mixture of legend, mythology, ghostly tales and eerie sightings”. My sister tells the tale of her own daughter who engaged in this practice, and how she was scared so much during the visit she became hysterical. My student said that her car stalled when she visited, and this is a common report by many. Others claim to have seen apparitions of axes appearing on the road. I think this story would make a fabulous movie!

So in small groups, I gave each person in the group a different character from the story and a few pieces of real information about the character. I explained that they had to write a recount of the day’s events as the police were collecting witness and testimony from all who were involved in sighting Chrissie on the day of her murder. This writing in role technique is one I use frequently, as giving them the role of “expert witness” provides both a motivation to write and also frames their language use in particular ways that can lead to elevated language use. We then spent time reflecting on structure and grammatical features typical of this kind of recount.

Next I gave the students the task, in their groups, to write a newspaper article about the event, for a range of differing purposes, using Wei Wang’s description of the micro genres of news commentary:

(Wang, 2007, based on Martin & Peters, 1985; Hoey, 1983; and White, 2002)

Again, we spent some time sharing and then reflecting on the way the language changes according to context and purpose.

Finally, since the story of Chriss Venn is the stuff of legends, I asked the students to create a poem, a nursery rhyme, a song lyric or cautionary tale about her. If I get permission, I’ll share some of the writing later, as it was amusing, clever, poignant, and “hair-on-your-neck-stand-up” spooky!

UPDATE:

Here is a poem by one of my very talented students:

The Lament of Chrissie Venn

The stump lies
Silent,
Shrieks unheard
Secrets untold
Ghosts unbound
A dress undone
Fabric unravelled
This is the dead
Eye stare of
A close knit
Community.

(c) Chris Rattray 2010

There is more to come!

Political Rhetoric and the Remix

In class today we were analysing the rhetoric of Obama’s “Yes We Can” speech.

(full text here)

A great linguistic analysis of the speech was done by David Crystal, here.

We then looked at will.i.am’s musical collage of the speech, and discussed the added layering of messages through the remixed version:

(song lyrics here)

One student then alerted me to a comedic remix of Australian PM Kevin Rudd’s speech, called “rudd.i.am”:

From the sublime to the ridiculous, from the serious to the comedic, from linguistics to multimodal semiotics… all offered material for some wonderful theoretical and analytical discussions.

Launceston’s Living Library: Would you like to read Edward??

“Living Libraries is a national strategy for connecting and strengthening communities through conversation” (Living Libraries Australia)

My friends Edward and Noel Broomhall are part of the committee who run the Launceston branch of the Living Library. Ever since they told me about it over Christmas I’ve been fascinated and curious to read a “living book”. A living book is a person who has a story to tell, and who has volunteered to be part of a living library, where visitors can come in, check them out for 30 minutes, and engage in a conversation with them about that story. Its an initiative to bring communities together, to capture an oral history, and to offer people opportunities to talk about potentially difficult subjects in a safe environment. Its aims include: to recognise and celebrate diversity and to inform and educate community members. The book titles and descriptions are inviting and intriguing:

LIVING A VIBRANT OLD AGE - Former teacher, principal and administrator; an active 74 year old heavily involved in a voluntary retiree group; a bee-keeper (a productive hobby) … definitely not just killing time.

STOP! POLICE! - Being a cop is not just about busting down doors and locking up the crooks, eating donuts and drinking coffee. Being a police officer is challenging, weird, demanding, confusing, stressful, funny, sad, easy, hard and occasionally rewarding. And that’s on a good day! Most of the time nobody wants anything to do with you, that is until something goes wrong …

NOT THE ONLY GAY IN THE VILLAGE - Can a bloke who has a beard down to his chest, drives a 4WD, smokes cigars & chops his own wood be gay? This is my world folks, in fact it’s the world of many men in the villages of Tasmania, & though ya wouldn’t want to pick a fight with me … sometimes, I don’t feel safe in the village.

MY LIFE AS AN OUTSIDER - Many people struggle, and do things that they normally wouldn’t do to be accepted into the in-crowd, while others don’t seem to mind at all and are perfectly happy with their social status.

WHAT DO POETS DO? – Poets do not live in garrets. They do not suffer for their art, wear wide brimmed floppy hats or black capes. They simply see things that others may miss.

LIVING A MONASTICAL LIFE - How does it feel to be a Coptic priest, living a monastical life in Launceston?

Isn’t this a wonderful example of community literacy practices that redefines or reimagines the concept of libraries, books, and reading. I love it, and I can’t wait to go and “read” Edward!

Augmented Reality: Storytelling will never be the same again!

I am really excited to discover that the Human Interface Technology Laboratory in Australia is actually just a few minutes walk from my office at UTAS!!

Here’s a description of its function:

HITLab AU brings virtual/mixed reality technologies to the Launceston campuses with a focus on design, visualisation, simulation and games. A key development will be collaborative teaching and research programs with schools and disciplines including Computing & Information Systems, Architecture & Design, Visual & Performing Arts, Human Life Sciences, Nursing, Education, Human Movement, and the Australian Maritime College.

I am very keen to develop some kind of collaboration with the HITLab and to learn about the kinds of projects already underway. I’ve been interested in Augmented Reality and where it could be going as far as education is concerned for a while now. Here is a video demonstrating simple applications:

I want one of those iMagic books!!
I would very much like to research how augmented reality affects reading. I sense another research project coming on!!

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