In the Witch's Kitchen

poem by Neal Levin , illustrated by Rosemary Fung

Learning Intention:

I am learning how to identify, explain and compare texts from different historical and geographical contexts so that I can explain the different ways that language features have been used.

Success Criteria:

  • I can define the term context and recognise its features in a text.
  • I can explain how context has influenced the type of language used in a text.
  • I can compare two texts with very different contexts.

Essential Knowledge:

More information about how social, historical and geographical factors influence the construction of a text can be found in the English Textual Concepts video Context.

Read the poem as a class. Alternatively, if you have a digital subscription, you can listen to the poem as an audio recording. After reading, ask the class whether these are ancient or modern witches. Students should identify that these witches are modern. Ask students how they came to this conclusion. Students should be able to recognise the context clues in the text. The use of a barbeque, a toaster, a pressure-cooker and a microwave all suggest a modern kitchen.

Introduce students to the concept of context. A good starting point is the Australian Curriculum Glossary:

An environment in which a text is responded to or created. Context can include general social, historical and cultural conditions in which a text is responded to and created (context of culture) or specific features of its immediate environment (context of situation).

Explain that knowing more about the social, historical and cultural context of a text deepens our comprehension of the text overall.

Next, explain to students that witches have appeared in many different cultures, societies and religions for thousands of years. There are lots of different texts about witches. Witches are different in each of these texts; they look different, have a range of powers and can sometimes be characterised as good or evil. Each text about witches reveals features about the social, cultural and historical context they were created in.

As a class, brainstorm a list of texts that contain witches (Harry Potter, Meg and Mog, The Worst Witch, Wicked). You may also want to show students a range of images of witches and ask them to identify the context (modern, old or ancient). Point to visual clues that indicate context – photograph or painting; colour or black and white?

Explain to students that they will read one of the most famous witch poems in history and identify how the language features of this poem reflect aspects of its context. Inform students that the poem was written by a man called William Shakespeare who was alive in the 1600s in England.

Provide students with a copy of the poem and read it as a class. (Suggested resource: The witches’ spell from Macbeth.) Identify the unknown or unfamiliar language features in this poem. These may include outdated parts of speech (thou) or unknown vocabulary (thrice, brinded, fenny snake, hedge-pig). Divide up these language features between students and ask them to research their meanings.

Come back together and as a class discuss the meaning of the poem. Then, identify how the language features reveal the context of the poem’s composition. For example, thou is an old-fashioned singular version of you and fenny snake is a particular kind of snake from the swamps of Eastern England. These context clues tell us where and when the poem was composed.