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?

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Having a baby while at University

Bump

Finding out: a shock to the system

University can be challenging enough at the best of times but, for myself in particular, I had to juggle the usual workload associated with studying with becoming a young mother.

I had been in a steady relationship for just over three years when (to our surprise) we found out that we were expecting. Not planned, but a nice surprise nonetheless because we had discussed having children in the future anyway.

I found out the week that I enrolled at University (I was nineteen at the time).

We spent much time discussing what would happen in terms of finances, housing and whether or not it would be possible for me to continue studying. We decided that we would be able to manage. I arranged to go and discuss my pregnancy with student services at my chosen institution and was not happy with how they tried to “deal with me”. I already knew that I wanted to continue my first year because I would be due to have my baby in May which would fit in well with my studies. I would then see what would happen once I had given birth, but realistically, I wanted to continue and finish my degree within the usual three year period rather than delaying its completion any longer than I needed to. So, I was quite upset with the rather presumptuous attitude held by the member of staff at student services; she didn’t want to listen to me when I said that I was perfectly fine with studying for the first year of my degree while pregnant. I was hearing phrases such as: “temporary withdrawal” and “focus on baby” and was not happy at all.

I left the meeting feeling alienated from the beginning. I remember spending longer than I should have getting quite emotional about my whole predicament and I resolved to change institutions- which was ultimately one of the best choices I made in the whole process. I eventually started my degree at Sheffield Hallam University where I was supported all the way (so I suppose I want to say thank you for that).

Keeping my bump a secret

Subsequent to my disastrous meeting with the previous institution, I wanted to err on the side of caution when telling new acquaintances about my pregnancy; I feared that I would be judged and that people may think I was a reckless and irresponsible young mother-to-be (just a note: being a young mother should not be associated with being reckless, for I know that I was level-headed for my age).

Anyway, I loved the start of my course and seemed to be able to cope with morning sickness and my insatiable cravings for milk (thankfully, the canteen sold little cartons). I was quite guarded and wasn’t the sort of student who could go out at the weekend, but I made some good friends while there and we enjoyed spending our time in coffee shops. However, I couldn’t bring myself to tell them from the beginning that I was pregnant- I suppose I was worried about being labelled “the pregnant one” before people had the chance to get to know me a little.

I remember that six months into my pregnancy, I was really starting to show (I lost quite a lot of weight due to sickness initially and had a tiny bump) meaning that I would have to let my friends know. I remember the day vividly: one of my friends and I went to Café Neo (a place that we frequented on a regular basis) and I remember thinking how I could possibly raise the subject. Somehow, my friend started talking about children and I asked her if she ever thought about having children of her own. Now was my chance. My friend then asked me the same question in return: “Yes, I would…in fact I will be doing, in about three months”. My friend was in total shock and seemed even more surprised that I hadn’t told her sooner. I felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

It did feel great to have people around me that knew that I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of my baby. During one particular seminar (which I do feel slightly guilty for), I felt my baby kick and became really excitable; most of the students around me whirled around and asked if they could feel her kick. It was a great moment, but I felt a little guilty for disturbing the lecture. However, the lecturer at the time didn’t seem to mind and instead brushed off what was happening and looked at me with at least what I thought was a little warmth and compassion.

Adapting

During the last three months of my pregnancy, I noticed things changing significantly and started struggling a little. I still to this day hear people say that “pregnancy isn’t an illness”- to which I want to tell them to try experiencing it for themselves.

Something that I actually look back on and laugh about now is that I couldn’t fit behind the fold-out small tables that were attached to chairs in some of the lecture halls, so I had to take up two seats and write on a table that was on the neighbouring chair. I remember joking that it would probably be easier to sit with my notepad resting on my bump!

I gave birth to my beautiful daughter on the 17th May 2008.

I had the summer period to adjust with such a new lifestyle, which I really needed due to having a baby who thought that she was nocturnal for the first few weeks of her life! I decided that I felt confident enough to continue with my second year and things went by smoothly enough with combining parenting and studying. I would get work done whenever the little one was asleep, so a pattern soon developed that I could stick to. I arranged childcare at a local nursery for when I would return for the next academic year, so I felt confident that things would work out well.

However, cracks were beginning to emerge in my relationship…

A difficult final year- becoming a single parent

My final year was when I nearly reached breaking point. Many students will be aware of the fact that the final year is dissertation year, so is very intense. This was the year in which my relationship with my daughter’s father broke down. Almost a year of very difficult times followed because it was by no means a civil break-up. I was extremely close to giving up with my studies because I remember thinking that I would be lucky to pass considering that my home life was so disruptive; I couldn’t focus on sitting at home and reading, then writing up essay drafts. However, I talked to some brilliant staff members at Sheffield Hallam University and was supported through this very difficult time. I managed to complete the year.

However, this experience had an impact on how I felt as a person: my confidence was severely shot at this point and during a PGCE interview I burst into tears when they asked me why I wanted to teach. I remember answering with tears in my eyes that I wanted to do it for my daughter because I wanted (and needed) a better life for us. I didn’t get offered a place. I suppose on hindsight that I wasn’t ready, but following this rejection, I decided to pick myself up and continue working hard for the both of us.

I completed my degree after the usual three years and decided to continue with postgraduate study. Being a single parent was difficult for many reasons, particularly in terms of finances, so I got a job at Costa coffee in my home town to help pay the bills while studying for my Master’s degree part-time. I met some wonderful people while working there and was sad to leave when I qualified.

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Following the completion of this course, I was successful in being offered a place on a Post-16 PGCE which I have recently completed and to my absolute delight I have started working where I completed my placement.

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I genuinely feel like all of the hard work has paid off; my daughter and I can finally look forward to the start of a better life. So, while it was certainly not easy, I am glad that I decided to continue with University; I would like to think that I am raising my daughter to the best of my abilities while hoping that I am teaching her that hard work can pay off in the end.

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Week of words

books

This week at my place of work has been dubbed the ‘week of words’ which, as the name may suggest, emphasises all things word-related. There have been student debates, writing competitions and readings of Shakespeare monologues, to name but a few of the events having been put in place. I must say that the atmosphere has been wonderful; I am particularly pleased that so many students have got on board and enjoyed the celebration of language, literature and creativity. I suppose I’m a little biased, considering that this is what I hope to instil in my own learners studying an English-related course anyway.

On Monday, I took a group of my students down to take part in a workshop run by two published writers: Paul Kane and Marie O’ Regan. I found the session informative and relevant for those students who have at least considered completing some of their own writing. I have been very impressed with the willingness that some of my students have demonstrated when it comes to spending the time producing their own work (that isn’t directly related to their own studies).

The workshop involved a discussion that offered students tips and advice on the journey to being published, including how to face (those almost inevitable) rejection letters. As well as this, they went over how to find inspiration in the most surprising of places (noting down any dreams that you can remember was a tip I particularly liked) such as short conversations you may hear when using public transport (for example).

I had a brief chat with the authors afterwards and expressed my interest in getting them to return when the Creative Writing A-Level starts in September this year, to which they seemed keen to get involved with.

A few of my learners seem interested in taking their writing further (again, this is great considering the commitments to their main programme of study) and who knows- maybe we have some budding writers in our midst?

Paul Kane and Marie O’Regan can be found on Twitter:

@PaulKaneShadow

@Marie_O_Regan