From IGS Head of English Thom Marchbank

In mid-October last year, eight students and two teachers began a HSC English Extension 2 journey like no other. Under the inspirational guidance of Principal Shauna Colnan, and outside the timetable when most other people had left School on Friday afternoons, we cultivated a literary coterie, a humble cenacle whose sole object was the considered pursuit of words and ideas.

English Extension 2 represents the apogee of literary studies in NSW high schools.

A tough, independent course that permits students to follow intellectual passion projects, to exercise and acquire skills in research, writing, and drafting, the course is a widening hermeneutic spiral of discoveries, opening outwards from initial crumbs and tidbits to glowing, hard-won realisations and epiphanies of bigger and bigger scope.

The course allows students to discover aspects of themselves and the world that they would not have otherwise within the more narrow bounds of other courses and their curricula, and to see the familiar in a new way. It is a bridge to university, and an impetus to produce a sustained piece of literary work that would not have existed were it not for their participating in the course.

For many, it can be a therapeutic tool, a means of expiating or clarifying or diagnosing something that has been niggling at them like a sore tooth.

Our students – Hugo Aguilera-Mendoza, Kat Alexander, Amelie Kenney, Jake Lacy, Ava Jenkin, Bianca Kotoulas, Tom Wilkin and Zara Upfold – had workshops with the luminary poet and writer Dr Felicity Plunkett, former Chief Examiner for the course and literary academic, who ran sessions that focused them with exquisite clarity on the power of just one word in its rightful place. Over the period of Off-Campus Learning, we got to know some of them better than ever before, as they grappled with purpose and direction in this new, uncharted territory of virtual learning and shifting goalposts.

We had moments of vulnerability and challenge, crises of faith, and stretches of ferociously hard work.

But through it all, the incandescent spirits of these eight fantastic students shone ever brighter. We are so inestimably proud of them and their achievements – not the least because of the grace with which they accepted feedback about their unfolding projects. Feedback can be a humbling experience. It is a very hard thing to face critique of creative work, given that the personal is so enmeshed with the aesthetic, and our students showed poise in how they considered and responded to feedback.

The major works and their reflection statements showcased here are astonishing in their variety and ambition.

There are poetic insights into the tectonic cultural forces that hem us in, encouraging us to conform and to consume; there is a beautifully considered meditation from a non-believer on what comforts or insights scripture might bring; there is a thoughtful reading of a hip-hop album that, like the best criticism, helps us to see this real artwork properly for its impact and worth in a wider cultural context; and there is a journey to a science fictional world that tests the bonds of friendship.

There are investigations into the value of gender, subtly wrought through the contemporary cultural artefacts of advertising; there is a profound evaluation of the psychoanalytic enterprise of Sigmund Freud; there is a filmic enterprise that uses the unique visual grammar of the screen to tell a story that cuts across time to consider the arc of a human life from youth to old age; and there is perhaps the closest, most honest excavation of the traumatic impact of a literary work that I have ever seen.

I commend these fine, rare, and special major works to you, and trust that you enjoy engaging with them as much as we did helping to shepherd them into the world.