SPaRK – The River and the Book
James Witchard is a Deputy Principal at Riverstone High School. In this Shared Practice and Resource Kit (SPaRK), James shares cross curriculum learning and teaching strategies based on an enchanting novel for Stage 4 students.
‘The River and the Book’ by Alison Croggon (Walker Books, 2015) is a short novel exploring the impacts of cultural theft, globalisation and invasion. Endorsed by Amnesty International, UK as contributing to a better understanding of human rights, this book is an excellent novel for Stage 4 students. ‘The River and the Book’ tells the story of Simbala and her plight to save her village and river from developers. The Book, a powerful prophecy tool, predicts the changes coming to Simbala’s village. However, it is the theft of the Book itself that causes the breakdown of cultural systems in ways that are far too familiar to nations across the world. Croggon brings some of the ubiquitous experiences of indigenous cultures to life in an unnamed country that effectively could be anywhere.
In a world where we sometimes experience the historical denial of invasion and the ongoing devastation caused by our forbearers, engaging all students in a discussion relating to cultural theft is imperative. For some students, this is a lived experience. For others, there is a responsibility to present the information in a way that engages students and empowers their voices against the mistakes of the past. By using the core outcomes from the NSW English K–10 syllabus, it was possible to create a clear and specific structure for teaching this novel. It has also been a valuable way to introduce students to high school novel studies.
The study was divided into three main sections:
- Critical analysis
- Language forms and features
- Cultural understanding
This model has proven to be an effective springboard for students beginning their high school English journey.
Suggestions for using this resource
As this is a relatively short novel (136 pages), it is ideal for in-class reading time which can assist students to develop their independent reading skills. Our strategy has been to divide the book into five-chapter sections and apply learning and teaching activities relating to the sections listed above. Not only does this ensure a direct link to the syllabus outcomes, but it also allows a consistent structure for students beginning high school English studies. Assessment tasks are also linked to these main sections, so students know exactly what outcomes they are working towards. Based on their work throughout the term, students already know their outcome-based strengths and weaknesses and can apply themselves appropriately.
We begin our unit by exploring some pre-reading activities, metalanguage and general awareness of ‘what is a unit study?’ We also engage students in a mini cultural awareness education session to arm our students with the appropriate language and terms to explore a foreign culture.
With foundational knowledge set, we begin our ‘5x3’, that is five chapters of reading followed by three activities. A sample of this unit is provided below for chapters 1-5.
Critical analysis: characters and roles
- List Sim’s full name
- Describe the type of child Sim was
- Describe the role the river played in Sim’s village
- Explain why Mizan visited the village
- Explain the role of The Keepers
- Describe the role of The Book
- Sim now lives in the city. Predict why you think she no longer lives in her village.
Language forms and features: adjectives
Copy the following definition:
Adjectives: An adjective is a describing word. Adjectives tell us about the quality of a person or thing.
For example: a tall boy
- Create a list of 10 adjectives located in Chapter 1, 2 and 3.
- Explain why you think adjectives are important in narratives.
- Explain why you think the author uses so many adjectives in the opening chapters of this novel.
A copy of the complete learning and teaching resource for The River and the Book – Year 7 Novel Study: Riverstone High School (PDF 1.2MB) is publicly available.
Water plays a vital role in every culture and country. For Sim and her family, the river supplies water to feed their plants and animals, a place to fish and transport. Many groups of people have built their whole way of life around rivers that pass through their villages. In the narrative, Sim says that their river has changed and is polluted. This is a deadly threat to their way of life.
The following video (2.47) focuses on state of the Niger River Delta after being polluted by multinational companies extracting oil in the area. Students can view the video and complete the tasks provided below.
- Describe how the river looks after becoming polluted.
- Explain the effects on the people living in the villages.
- Suggest what you think will happen if the villagers continue to eat the fish they catch in the river.
- Explain how you think the pollution issue in Sim’s village in ‘The River and the Book’ is similar to what is occurring on the Niger Delta.
The transcultural nature of the novel and the unspecified setting allow significant links to be made between the NSW English K–10 syllabus and NSW History K–10 syllabus. Our school has successfully taught this novel as a Year 7 novel study covering:
- EN41A – A student responds to and composes texts for understanding, interpretation, critical analysis, imaginative expression and pleasure
- EN45C – A student thinks imaginatively, creatively, interpretively and critically about information, ideas and arguments to respond to and compose texts
- EN48D – A student identifies, considers and appreciates cultural expression in texts
In addition, there are relevant connections to the Stage 4 history content that allow studies on ‘The River and the Book’ to be a companion unit or be converted into a cross-curricular study. It is especially pertinent to Depth study 6: Expanding contacts – Aboriginal and Indigenous Peoples, colonisation and contact history.
History K–10 outcomes include:
- HT42 – describes major periods of historical time and sequences events, people and societies from the past
- HT43 – describes and assesses the motives and actions of past individuals and groups in the context of past societies
- HT44 – describes and explains the causes and effects of events and developments of past societies over time
- HT46 – uses evidence from sources to support historical narratives and explanations
- HT47 – identifies and describes different contexts, perspectives and interpretations of the past
- HT410 – selects and uses appropriate oral, written, visual and digital forms to communicate about the past.
While much of the work in this unit is quite prescriptive, there are many opportunities to experiment with issues arising from the novel. In particular, there is a great link for Stage 4 students between the English outcomes (NSW English K–10 syllabus) and the Depth Study 6: Expanding Contacts – 6d Aboriginal and Indigenous Peoples, Colonisation and Contact History in Stage 4 history (NSW History K–10 syllabus).
For instance, the depth study explores a comparison between the experiences of Aboriginal Australians and another indigenous group such as the Plains Indians of North America, The Pacific Region, China, Africa, South-east Asia or South Asia. It focuses on the nature of colonisation, the impact of contact and the ongoing consequences of colonisation. In our school we have always opted to compare the Australian Aboriginal experience with the Plains Indians of North America. There are strong links here that allow student understanding to deepen beyond the historical exploration of colonial times encountered in primary school.
'The River and the Book' relates to many aspects of this depth study. The experiences on the Pembar Plains discussed in the novel can be related to many indigenous histories around the world. Studying the English novel while students concurrently undertake the previously mentioned depth study in history allows students to form their own links in understanding. There is also great capacity to draw a stronger connection and design a Project Based Learning or a cross-curricula project.
By way of example students could:
- Design a museum exhibit on cultural theft.
- Create a ‘Book’ that tells the prophecies and histories of a chosen indigenous group.
- Create a comparative text that uses the experiences of their chosen cultural group and shows how these historically recorded instances are woven into the fictional narrative. (This comparison could be presented in a multimodal manner).
Croggan, A. (2015). The River and the Book. Walker Books, Australia.
NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales. (2012). English K-10 syllabus.
NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales. (2012). History K-10 syllabus.
Witchard, J. (2017). The River and the Book: Year 7 novel study. Riverstone High School, NSW.
How to cite this article – Witchard, J. (2020). SPaRK: The River and the Book. Scan, 39(5).