Using a novel in the literacy classroom: Surfing Mr Petrovic

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It begins with the dramatic line “Everybody hates me.” The author then proceeds to take us on a journey written in the first person from the point-of-view of Tao Symonds, the eleven year old narrator and central character, as he reflects on the previous few months of his life. Tao thinks the whole world is against him. He is suffering pressure from school, his parents and their new partners, as well as from his peers to join in theirescapades and to top it all off, his dog has died.

Tao feels confused and angry because his parents, middle aged surfer father, Greg, and his mother, a teacher called Christine, are in the process of a break-up. Tao then lists his troubles and tells the reader of his present dread as he is taken by his mother to meet Mr. Petrovic, a Croatian immigrant, to apologize for something he says is not his fault, at least not entirely his fault. Through the use of past and present tense, Colin Bowles complicates the plot telling us in Tao’s view how it all started.

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Story Characters Analysis

Tao and his friends, Matt and Bluey, are kicking a football in the street when it goes into the front yard of Mr. Petrovic. Matt sends Bluey to get it. Mr. Petrovic sees him and shouts at him so the boys all flee. Over the course of several weeks, Matt leads Tao and Bluey in harassing Mr. Petrovic due to Matt’s insistence that he has to “…be Got Back”( Bowles, 1997, p.

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8). They turn off the water when he is in the shower, arrange for a load of firewood to be dumped in his driveway and ride their skateboards through his rose garden before Matt and Bluey use scissors to vandalise Mr Petrovic’s rose garden. Against his better judgment, Tao goes along with most of these schemes because he is afraid of being left out of their gang.

Tao looks up to his friend Matt who he sees as “Really cool” (Bowles, 1997, p.2) however, Matt does several things that show him as a coward. Tao bends to the peer pressure from Matt regularly even when he knows what they are doing is wrong. Tao begins to realize that Matt is not as deserving of his respect as he previously thought when Matt ‘rats’ on them for the firewood episode, a prank that was in fact completely Matt’s doing. When Matt lets Tao take full responsibility for cutting the roses, a prank to which Tao voiced strong opposition, and is suspended from school, Tao sees him in a new light. As a repercussion of his suspension, Matt’s mother takes him to visit Mr Petrovic in person.

Colin Bowles displays great skill when he finally brings the reader into Mr Petrovic’s world. Initially Mr Petrovic appears to ignore Tao’s apology, seemingly in a world of his own while he narrates his past life and his reasons for coming to Australia. Eventually he accepts Tao’s apology and then continues to describe what happened to him and his family in Croatia. This conversation then leads to Tao understanding the significance of the rose garden vandalised by Matt and Bluey. Mr Petrovic brought the roses with him from Croatia to remind him of his late wife who died when a bomb struck their house. She had a lovely garden and these particular roses were her pride and joy and a source of great comfort to Mr Petrovic in his new environment.

Themes Highlighted in the Book

There are many themes throughout the book including divorce/separation, immigration, peer pressure, family dynamics, grief, guilt, honesty and empathy. Colin Bowles shows an insight into reactions of children suffering a family break-up, how they might feel, their fears and the way they might blame themselves for their parents break-up. The author has adopted the position of a narrator, telling a bias story that eventually results in a broader view being examined and exposed. He tells the story from Tao’s point of view as an eleven year old might imagine an unknown new immigrant; scary, different, maybe even a war criminal, and eventually exposes him for what he is, a kind old man.

Mr Petrovic does not chop off Tao’s head with an axe as he imagined, but invites him in for cordial and a biscuit. Mr Petrovic does not have “…rats and cobwebs and bits of dead bodies leaking out of the refrigerator…” (Bowles, 1997, p.127), but has religious icons and family photos hanging on the wall. Tao expects him to gouge out his eyes upon meeting him but Mr Petrovic “…did a remarkable thing. He patted me on the cheek” (Bowles, 1997, p.127). This reveals to the reader that the text has been very one sided and there is another side to the story.

I enjoyed “Surfing Mr Petrovic” very much. This is an important point in teaching English and encouraging children to read for enjoyment. It is unlikely that a teacher can inspire or encourage children to read if the teacher cannot display genuine enthusiasm for the text they are promoting
(Elements of an English Program: Sharing Texts, 2007).

Using the Book for Teaching English

Preceding the sharing of the text with students an explanation would occur as to why this particular text was being introduced. It would be stated that the text will be read primarily for enjoyment but also to use the opportunity to explore the themes, structure and features of different text genres. The title, cover and blurb would be used to encourage students to make predictions about the text and what it might be about (see appendix 1).

The approach to the reading of the novel would be varied. It is anticipated that the class study would begin with a shared reading of the opening chapter to foster students’ interest. A prepared reading by the teacher is usually much more involving than a hesitant reading-around-the-class activity (Sykes, n.d.). The aim is to motivate each student to read the novel for pleasure and not just because they have to. Subsequent reading would be done in a variety of ways; aloud, silently, as a whole group or in smaller groups. When using small group reading, students would be grouped to ensure skilled readers are not frustrated by slower readers or that slower readers would not be intimidated by those more capable. Another approach would be to permit students to take on the roles of characters, a reader’s theatre, which would assist students to develop an understanding of direct speech (Readers Theatre, 2007).

Students should hear reading modelled from the text by more proficient readers (Targeting Text: A Guided Writing Project, 2007). This would be particularly helpful for less able students to increase their knowledge of vocabulary, characterisation, intonation, pace, pause and sentence structure. This can also be achieved by the teacher reading selected chapters and using different strategies to make meaning from the text, sometimes pausing to re-read a particular passage, questioning students about the meaning of the text, inviting speculating as to what might happen and having students make associations with their own experience. By drawing on their own experiences and prior knowledge students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts (Guided Comprehension, 2008). Having students read aloud can help in assessing their ability to make meaning of the text which may be indicated by the fluency of their reading, using their knowledge of punctuation and grammar (Campbell & Green, 2006).

Students will also be encouraged to make meaning from texts through small group discussions as well as class discussion to cover the many everyday experiences depicted in the text. This would allow students to discuss freely the viewpoints of writers and students perceptions of the dilemmas that the characters encounter (Langman, 2001). Class discussion would be used to encourage students to connect the problems in this novel with other problems they have personally experienced, in family situations, with friends, seen in movies, TV, or on the news. Students would be asked to identify themes or lessons to be learned from the novel.

Reading the text in instalments would facilitate the integration of the Directed Reading Thinking Activity (Direct Reading Thinking Activity, 2007). This activity involves asking students to keep a reading log which would be utilised for a wide variety of purposes. Students would use their reading logs to record what they have read, respond to questions and analyse texts. The reading log is a place where students can predict what they think may happen next in the text and why they think that may be. Reading logs can also be used to write what they learn about different characters as the reading progresses as well as keeping a record of interesting words and phrases and to comment on their effectiveness. Unknown or difficult words would be noted in their reading log and then students would discuss with peers those words to analyse their meaning. Students could also volunteer these words to be added to a spelling list.

Advantages of Keeping a Reading Log

The reading log would be used for students to note their opinions about the text such as:

•Are there any stereotypes in the text?

•What is fact and what is opinion?

•How are the characters feeling?

•What words or phrases does the author use to convey these ideas?

To assess students understanding of the text the question would be asked where they thought the book was set, in what country and environment and how they have come to realise or guess this. The reading log would provide an ideal concrete resource to undertake ongoing assessment of students’ progress as well as give students opportunities to engage in peer and self assessment as well as editing and self correction. Reading logs are a useful way for teachers to monitor student reading, assess students’ understanding of texts, as well as allowing students to reflect on their learning (Key Learning Processes, 2007).

One of the major themes throughout the novel is that of peer pressure. Tao makes the comment early in the novel “So I had to agree to go along even though I didn’t want to” (Bowles, 1997, p.25). This would be seized upon to develop an integrated study on peer pressure. Students would be asked for their description of what peer pressure is and how it affects individuals. An offshoot program would then begin having students research more thoroughly these effects which may include our fashion choice, alcohol and other drug use, choice of friends and its possible effect on academic performance. That peer pressure may be present in the workplace, at school or within the general community, can affect people of all ages but it is not always a negative outcome even though it is typecast as such would be explored. Students would be asked to write about peer pressure utilising different text genres.

Utilising “Surfing Mr Petrovic” students would be taught to understand the features of a narrative text. A dictogloss would be created by writing a short summary of the novel, ensuring elements from the orientation, sequence of events, complication and resolution were included. This structure would be explored with students prior to the activity. Students would take notes as a section of the text was read to them and then work in pairs to fill in any gaps they may have with the aim of recreating the reading. This activity develops active listening and note taking skills in students, helps to gauge students’ understandings of the text as well as their ability to extract and record the main ideas in a text. Students would be asked to compare their words and then share their understanding with the rest of the class to determine if they have all of the important elements of the summary.

After ensuring that students understand the characteristics of narrative text they would then be asked to brainstorm ideas for a text with the lead “Everybody loves me”, a direct turn round to the lead in “Surfing Mr Petrovic”. Students would be asked to again read the first few sentences of “Surfing Mr Petrovic”. From there a discussion would be instigated revolving around ideas for our own narratives. This would involve students exploring ideas for the orientation, the use of descriptive language to help readers create an image of the characters in their mind and to give the characters defined personalities or identities. Students’ would then be asked to draw a picture of a character using these ideas. Brainstorming discussion for the setting, complications and resolution would follow, with students then designing a story web. Students would be asked to write a short narrative independently using some of the ideas brainstormed.

“Surfing Mr Petrovic” would then be used to develop understanding of other text genre in practical ways to provide learners with opportunities to develop their understanding and use of language (Campbell and Green, 2006). This could be achieved by using text genre such as recount and involve students retelling some part of the story as a diary entry from Mr Petrovic or another character from the text. To achieve this would involve a class discussion on the purpose, audience, structure and language features of a diary entry. This would include the traditional ‘Dear Diary’ beginning, the use of first person and the use of emotive and descriptive language describing feelings, reactions, hopes and fears.

Another text genre that could be explored is transaction texts. This could be achieved by asking students’ to write letters as if they were one of the characters of the book or writing to the author of the novel. They could write a letter to a friend explaining how they are feeling pressure from peers, asking for advice or replying to a similar letter. Students would then be involved in create an example of exposition text and discuss the ways the language/structure would change to use these ideas in a brochure or poster. To explore procedure text students could brainstorm ideas about how they think Matt may have planned how to turn off the water to Mr Petrovic’s house and then be asked to write a procedural account in their reading log.

The use of headlines and the ‘who, what, where, why, when and how’ system could be incorporated to aid student’s comprehension of report writing. Using information from the text, students would be asked to write a newspaper report about the delivery of the firewood into Mr Petrovic’s driveway. Students would be asked to compose six to eight questions that they would like to ask a main character in the book that will give the character the opportunity to discuss his/her thoughts and feelings about his/her role in the story. Students could write down what they think the character might reply. Students would also be asked to work in pairs to do an investigative report on the affect of peer pressure in the playground.

Report writing could also incorporate the use of the internet to research different projects such as on peer pressure, what it is, how it affects people and what to be aware of or investigating Croatia, its location, geography and history. Students work in pairs, preferably a student with some experience with internet with a student that needed guidance. These projects could also incorporate wall displays with separate groups of students exploring either peer pressure or Croatia. Other wall displays could be generated displaying the various text genres and their characteristics. For example a group of students may work on narrative text and do a display that shows how it relates to “Surfing Mr Petrovic” explaining their understanding of narrative construction, the use of leads, orientation, complication/s and conclusion as well as the various methods authors use to enrich text such as descriptive words and similes.

To prepare students for writing an argument or exposition text, students would first be asked to debate a question such as “Should Tao have exposed Matt and Bluey as the real culprits in the rose affair?” An interesting class discussion utilising debating or argumentative skills, could be incorporated by utilizing the particularly pertinent lines from Tao on page 119 where he is asked if anyone else was involved in the cutting down of the rose bush. Tao thinks to himself that it would be pointless involving Matt and Bluey because no one would believe him, they would think he was just trying to worm his way out of trouble. This could then be related back to the firewood incident where Matt dobbed them in and said “You mean, if I hadn’t said anything you were going to let me take the heat on my own?” Once a consensus is reached students would then be asked to write down their thoughts on the debate (Academic Controversy, 2007). This activity will allow students to reflect on their own values and experience as well as hear alternative positions.

To assist students to understand that ideas and information in texts are not neutral and that they might even silence others, we could use “Surfing Mr Petrovic” as an example. Students would initially be asked if they thought the text from Tao’s point of view was fair. Students would then be asked to write a chapter from the view of Tao’s father, mother or Mr Petrovic. To write from the viewpoint of Matt should provide some interesting ideas also. Prior to reading chapter 14 students would be asked to write what they think of Mr Petrovic as he has been described through Taos eyes. After reading chapter 14 a discussion on Mr Petrovic’s narrative would assist students in understanding how texts position viewers as well as developing an understanding of empathy.

“Surfing Mr Petrovic” lends itself well to an exercise on literacy Sociograms (Literary Sociograms, 2007). Students would be asked to draw a diagram showing the social and family relationships throughout the novel with Tao’s name central on the page. The value of this exercise is in the discussion and revisiting of the text that the students would participate in during construction (Campbell & Green, 2006).

There are three processes that are fundamental to learning in English, reflection, negotiation and collaboration (Key Learning Processes, 2007).These skills can be addressed with the aid of handouts that include written activities (appendix 2), class discussion (appendix 3) or a variety of different ideas incorporating the use of various text genres (appendix 4). Many of these can easily be incorporated in the reading of novels.

Colin Bowles makes use of many similes throughout the novel, particularly in relation to descriptions of Mr Petrovic (appendix 5). These would be incorporated into a lesson to encourage students to draw a picture of what they thought Mr Petrovic looked like and a discussion on how the author uses similes to create effect. Students would be asked to construct some examples of their own similes in their reading log and share them with the class. A follow on activity would be to write a simile poem utilising a marshmallow (Forms of Poetry, 2007).

This exciting novel would provide an excellent resource to integrate many authentic learning opportunities in various areas including English, Geography, ICT and Social Responsibility as shown above and in the appendices. The novel will help students understand that although people’s culture and appearance may be different from their own, once we have the opportunity to enter into their world we find that they are not as different or scary as imagined. The concentration of work in a reading log, self correction and peer discussion of work, would all combine to assist students construct valuable reading and writing skills.


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  • Sykes, H. (n.d.). Teachers’ Notes for Refugee. Puffin Australia. Retrieved 10 February, 2008, from
  • Targeting Text: A Guided Writing Project. (2007). Teaching Ideas and Units – Teaching Strategies. English Learning Area. Department of Education, Tasmania, School Education Division. Retrieved 10 February, 2008, from

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Using a novel in the literacy classroom: Surfing Mr Petrovic. (2016, Aug 03). Retrieved from

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