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History and Literacy – A Grammar Lesson with Ned Kelly

When I worked at the State Library of Victoria I was often reading and discussing Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie letter with students. It is such a colourful and fascinating insight into the man who still elicits such powerful, yet opposing, feelings. The language is a hoot and the explanations he offers for his actions are an eclectic combination of passionate justifications and childish excuses. Students loved it, and I loved using it.

One of the letter’s amusing features is its poor grammar. While it is remarkable that Ned was literate at all, the letter’s distinct lack of punctuation makes it somewhat difficult to read. Generally believed to be dictated by Ned and written by his friend Joe Byrne, the letter definitely reads like spoken rather than written language. Because of this, I had always thought that it would make a fun literacy activity to try and correct his grammar. Today, I gave it a bash…

I was teaching in a Year 5/6 classroom in Darwin and had limited time to think of some activities, so I thought it was the perfect opportunity to call on Ned to help me out. We started the lesson with a bit of a revision of sentence features and structures. The students had some prior knowledge in this area, but hadn’t done much grammar-specific editing. They knew next to nothing about Ned Kelly (a shocking realisation to a Victorian!), so we also did a little introduction to his life.

Then I let them have a go at editing the first 5 pages of the Jerilderie letter – the transcript, not the original! – which I took from the SLV website. They started off well and gave it a good go, but as the language became increasingly more difficult and his story more confusing, they started losing motivation and concentration. At that point I started reading through it with them. As we had limited time, I had them edit it direct on the page, but with more time it would definitely be worth actually re-writing it.

When we went through it together they enjoyed it more, which I think was mainly because I was able to add a bit of emotion into reading it. I also translated some of the language into modern slang, which they enjoyed. For example, I explained to them “when he says:

my fist came in collision with McCormack’s nose and caused him to loose his equillibrium and fall postrate

What he means is:

I accidentally punched him in the nose and he fell flat on his face.”

Once we finished editing it we re-read sections of it and the students were able to get a bit more of a picture of what he was trying to say.

Overall the lesson went well, and with a few adjustments I think it would be a very worthwhile activity for teachers to run. The main improvement I would make would be to integrate it into the historical study of Ned Kelly or bushrangers. This would have given some context for the students and greater motivation for them to interpret the letter – most students I have come across thoroughly enjoy learning about Ned Kelly. The second change would be to provide more scaffolding in editing and grammar. As this was a one off, it was quite a challenging task for the students. If the students had more background skills it would have been much easier for them.

Also, I would think it would be a quicker (and possibly more fun) activity for secondary students.

Not all students like learning or practising their grammar, but with a bit of Ned’s charm and charisma, they might even find it fun! If anyone gives it a go, or has in the past, please let me know how it went.

(Picture from the State Library of Victoria – Manuscripts Collection).

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