Favourite and least favourite texts to teach

Favourite and least favourite texts to teach

For the August English blog sync, we are to write about what our favourite and least favourite texts are to teach. As English teachers, it is obvious that we enjoy reading and interpreting texts. It’s in our nature. I know that I have a vast amount of “favourites” that I hope I will one day have the pleasure of being able to teach, thus (hopefully) instilling some of my own passion into my learners. Yet, when it comes to teaching, our initial passions can sometimes be marred by repetition and (in my own experience) the negative responses of our learners.

Least favourite

I would say that my least favourite text to teach is Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. While I think that this text is deeply moving with its exploration of shattered hopes and dreams, providing a glimpse of life in America around the Great Depression, I quite simply don’t enjoy teaching it.

I have not been teaching for long, but I taught this text during my first PGCE placement and then at the institution that I currently work at during this past academic year. The cohort of students (at an FE college) that I teach, are those that received a D grade or below previously. Some were taking their GCSE English for the second time, others for the third time. As a result of this, many of them had studied this text before, so what followed when they arrived to class with the copies of this novella strewn around the room was a host of sighs and comments along the lines of “Are we reading this AGAIN?”. Quite simply- they are bored of it. To have not achieved the grade that you wanted/needed the previous year, to find that you have to exactly repeat what you are studying can be quite demotivating (in my opinion). Perhaps this cohort need to be inspired and feel like they are starting afresh and perhaps for some- turning over a new leaf.

OMAM

Time is an also an issue for our students because we deliver the GCSE English (4700) course which runs for a year; this means that we only have one academic year to guide students through completing five pieces of controlled assessments and an exam. As a result of this, fitting in a reading of this novella can be overly time-consuming- especially when you consider that we can offer to teach the AQA short stories instead.

My favourite

The text I have selected for my favourite, took me by surprise. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, is a powerful bildungsroman that contains some truly shocking and haunting moments. This last year was the first in which I taught this text at A-Level and so I wasn’t sure how students would react to it. I was pleasantly surprised because the majority of the group said that they thoroughly enjoyed it- a few even finished reading the novel after the first session because they wanted to know what happened before we started our close analysis.

Kite runner

As a result of some of the shocking moments in the novel, I had to be very careful when holding class discussion about key quotations, characterisation and themes etc. to avoid causing any offence to anyone in the group.

I happened to have my first internal graded observation during a session on The Kite Runner and was praised for how well I handled discussions based around the sensitive material in the text. I think that teaching sessions on this text has developed my practice in that I will take care in the future in terms of pre-empting conversations that may arise following the reading and discussion of any sensitive material.

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The new A-Level Literature (B) specification: making the right choices

Making the right choices

Anyone delivering A-Level English/Literature will be well aware of the changes that are to be implemented in September. Love them or loathe them, they are coming. One of the main changes with the Literature course will be the unit options: we will be losing the ‘Aspects of Narrative’ unit and it will be replaced with ‘Aspects of Tragedy’ or ‘Aspects of Comedy’. The second year of the full A-Level will no longer comprise of ‘Elements of the Gothic’, but will be a choice between ‘Elements of crime writing’ or ‘Elements of political and social protest writing’, with the coursework unit remaining very similar (the coursework will still be an independent reading portfolio but the critical anthology will be altered).

A few months ago the three members of staff (including myself) at my institution that deliver A-Level English/Literature arranged a meeting consisting of discussions about how we are going to approach the changes. We spent time going over the new specification, working out what exactly is changing and what the choices are to be in terms of texts. We decided that we would focus solely on the next academic year rather than making any decisions on the second year of the full A-Level at this stage- so, as a result, I will not be commenting on the ‘Elements of crime writing’ or ‘Elements of political and social protest writing’ in this post.

Something that we acknowledged, was that we need find the right balance for ourselves in the sense of retaining any texts that we have an abundant supply of books of, and what we would like to teach for a fresh and exciting start to the next academic year.

The text combinations for the AS Level (Aspects of Tragedy unit) are as follows:

A Level choices 1

A Level choices 2

…and for the full A-Level (Aspects of Tragedy unit):

A Level choices 3

When considering what texts to select for teaching from September, we thought of some combinations that could work but soon realised that we were in fact quite restricted. For example, I was particularly keen on selecting The Great Gatsby, but it was soon highlighted that if this was selected as the prose text for the full A-Level, then we would have to select (due to the limitations applied for the paper in the full A-Level specification) Richard II, Tess of the D’Urbervilles or a collection of poetry by John Keats, as the specification stipulates that at least one of the texts must be pre-1900.

However, there could be a way around this:

If students studied The Great Gatsby in the first year, they would take the AS exam and be assessed for their efforts, but they wouldn’t answer the question on The Great Gatsby in the exam at the end of the full A-level as it wouldn’t be an assessed text. So why bother teaching this text? Arguably, students will develop their analytical skills by studying any of the texts on offer, so it would be beneficial for this reason alone- but we do need to think of tangible assessment. As well as developing the skills associated with the study of literature, students will also answer a question on this text for the AS Level- it’s just that this will only be a practice test (so to speak) if they decide to “transfer” to the full A-Level (as far as I am aware, at my institution, all students will be entered for the AS initially, then transferred to the full A-Level if they are to continue to the second year). If that is the case, then they do have the option of writing about The Great Gatsby when it comes to their coursework in the second year.

Gatsby

What we prefer vs what will be better for our students

I would be lying if I said that I didn’t love the idea of delivering some Shakespeare… then some more Shakespeare, but  we need to be realistic and think of what students will both prefer and be more likely to engage with; they need to study texts that will develop their skills when it comes to studying and interpreting literature. As a result, we must ultimately put the needs of our learners before our own preferences. Yet, a fine balance between personal interest of those who deliver the course, and learners can be found…I think we have just about managed this.

Final choices

Following much deliberation, we have opted for the following *queue drum roll*:

AS Level

  • Othello
  • Death of a Salesman
  • The Great Gatsby (this will not be assessed on at the end of the full A-Level)
  • A selection of John Keats’s poems

I think that what we have opted for allows for a broad exploration of literature from different time periods; there is to be an analysis of the roaring twenties with The Great Gatsby; an exploration of Shakespeare’s age that moves on from what students have learned at GCSE with Othello; a study of Romanticism and what this literary movement has contributed to poetry, with the work of Keats; then, a study of American culture shortly after WW2 with Death of a Salesman.

(c) Bristol Museum and Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Bristol Museum and Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

What have other institutions opted for and why?

Are we really encouraged to gain a grade 1?

observation

I recently had my first internal graded observation and was very pleased with my feedback; I was told that the session was very good and that I had been awarded a 2.

While a grade 1 is the ultimate goalpost for most teachers (I’ll explain the ‘most’ shortly), I am genuinely over the moon about the grade that I received. Considering that this year has been tumultuous to say the least, what with lesson planning and resource-making taking over my life, this has reassured me that I am certainly working to the level that I should be and that I must be doing something right!

The build-up

Prior to this having taken place, I was informed by colleagues that I would be “got” soon- making me see this waiting as a temporary dodging of a judgemental bullet.

I soon felt that heart-sinking and almost earth-shattering moment in which you open your emails to find your notification that you will shortly be observed. For any member of staff, this is daunting, but this was to be my first ever official internal teaching observation, which in my eyes would be a seal of approval, or a sign that I’m failing miserably. I was told the week in which this observation would take place. Yes, that’s right- the week. The way it works is that you are not to know when your observer will turn up and watch your teaching all hawk-like. I imagine that it works like this at most institutions in an attempt to get a more realistic feel for how your sessions go.

What followed was genuine support from colleagues in my directorate, which made me feel all the more relaxed about the whole process. Or, as relaxed as one can be given the circumstances.

The pre-observation meeting went well, in which I was informed about what will happen on the day and how long I would need to wait for my feedback. I remember feeling particularly anxious about the possibility of getting lower than a grade 2 but, significantly, I thought to myself how worrying it would be to gain a grade 1. How would that make me feel? Now, in all honesty, the thought of being told that your session was ‘outstanding’ and involved fully engaged learners in an efficient learning environment would be great. However, I was told that I would be required to share my best practice with other staff members. This is what concerned me a little. The reason for this being that I was (and still am) anxious about how I would be received by those staff members to whom I am supposed to assist in developing their teaching practice. How would this make another member of teaching staff feel? Would you embrace this guidance or resent it a little? I mean, even experienced teachers can have a “bad day at the office”, so what’s to say that they need your guidance? This shouldn’t put you off, but I’ve heard a few teachers saying (in person and on social media) how they are ‘only’ aiming for a 2 and wouldn’t want a 1. I suppose for myself, the highest grade would be wonderful, but I would be apprehensive about sharing my practice. Not that I don’t want to assist others, I just feel that I may come across as being arrogant or condescending- which is the last thing that I want to happen.

So, onto my next point- are our observed sessions a realistic reflection of our day-to-day practice? Again, I think this is open for debate; I know that I wanted to keep my sessions in line with my usual lesson structure and general professional approach. However, I will be honest when I say that I spent much longer on my documentation than I usually do. For example, my lesson plans are usually typed up in my own way- I like to produce a document for each day that I work, with sub-headings and bullet points that outline specific sessions. I still list the resources that I use, but I know how I differentiate in my own mind and don’t always document how this is to take place. So, for my observation, I ensured that all of this information was very clear; I suppose lesson plans can vary depending if you are to be the sole user or not.

The session

Following my preparation, I just took each session as it came, not knowing when the “moment” would come. However, on what turned out to be the day in which I was observed, there had been some room-related disruptions that I had to work around in an almost panicked state.

The room that I was to teach in for the majority of the day had had work done on the windows and the blinds had not been put back up. This meant that there was a blinding light blocking any view of anything on the board. Brilliant.

What followed my realisation of this, was sheer exasperation due to the fact that the presentation I had prepared was going to be of no use. Or was it? I quickly photocopied (one of those rare occasions where there was no queue at the photocopier) a few copies of what I had prepared. I was going to hand these out to learners but instead, I decided to use what I could see on my own computer screen as a prompt. Thankfully, I pulled it off and the learners were open to discussing key character traits throughout the text, then focused on the finding of quotations from the novel to back up any points they could raise about specific characters. *Queue sigh of relief*

What happened during this session, further solidifies my view regarding resources.  I can rarely use resources that have been pre-prepared by someone else (there are many available on a variety of different websites); I like to put presentations and hand-outs together myself so that I know them off by heart in case of an emergency like this one, even though this can be very time-consuming. If I were to use something pre-prepared then I would risk just reading it out like a script. Something that I want to avoid doing whenever possible.

I did feel a glow of pride when it came to how my learners behaved; they were responsive and well-behaved (even more so than usual). I didn’t need to ask my learners to do this by glaring at them when my observer entered the room and needing to mouth something along the lines of “behave yourselves or else”. They did this anyway.

Then came the moment when I was asked to leave the room so that my group could be asked some questions along the lines of “do you feel safe in this classroom?” and “is this a usual session?” I had to uncomfortably wait outside while the group were, in effect, sealing my fate. Or at least that is how it felt. In any case, my observer left the room smiling and told me that she would be in touch shortly regarding my feedback meeting.

The feedback

Thankfully, (as I have already mentioned) the session was awarded a 2 and I was given praise regarding my use of Prezi (one of my favourite presentation-making tools) and my ability to improvise when things didn’t go according to plan.

I was also told that I was ‘ferocious’ in my dealing with sensitive subject matter that needed to be discussed during the session (and during many others for that matter). We have been reading The Kite Runner, which involves the rape of a child, the rise of the Taliban and subsequent turmoil in Afghanistan. I feel that while we have a responsibility to teach our learners the subject matter required to pass their course, we are also (at least) partially responsible to aid in the development of their world views, maturity and general compassion for others. Of course, this is something that I imagine all teachers aim for anyway.

The feedback that I received regarding ways of “enriching” (my observer’s words not mine) the session, and subsequent sessions, were all valid points; I was informed that I should experiment with my allocations of different groups and alter the table layouts so that conversations and discussions between learners can be more efficient. For example, I had groups of threes that on hindsight (a wonderful thing) would have struggled to appropriately discuss their task with each other due them all being sat on tables next to each other rather than on table islands in which they could face each other. Point noted and to be taken on board.

…and breathe. Then relax.

Question

So, I want to end with a question: Are we really encouraged to gain a grade 1, creating more work for ourselves as well as possible tensions among colleagues?

Marlowe’s musing corner commences…

I’ve been toying with the idea of starting a blog for some time now, but have been unsure about what particular subject field I should home in on. Perhaps I could detail the vast amount of books that I am yet to read (a so-called literary bucket-list), with a review of each as I consume them in a locust-like fashion?

Or, I could account my journey throughout my recent PGCE and subsequent NQT year in an FE institution (that I am currently working my way through).

So, in all honesty, I have opted for a teaching-related blog; significantly because the former option would be difficult to fit in with my day-to-day life, following my struggle (like many NQTs) with maintaining an appropriate work/life balance.

Yet, as an English lecturer, I am certainly going to be referring to the wonderful host of texts that I read and analyse with my learners. Best of both worlds.

Let me take a moment to explain the name of this blog: ‘Marlowe’s corner’. I’m interested in Renaissance literature and when I bought a little fluffy bundle of feline fur, I decided to call him Marlowe (a kitten named after ‘Kit’ Marlowe was quite apt I thought). I got the idea for Marlowe’s corner, because I often sit out of the way (usually in the corner of my living room) and curl up with a good book. However, Marlowe likes to lay on my lap while I do this, so it’s his corner. Marlowe’s corner.