Saturday, 31 May 2014

Reading Role Models and the new English GCSEs

We'll leave talking about the way the new GCSE English Language looks for another day. The topic of the moment is GCSE English Literature, separate and distinct qualifications, lest we not forget. Any good school curriculum will have them being taught together - we learn language through literature. Being a good reader helps you be a good writer. It really is that simple. I don't know of a single writer who doesn't read extensively, and who isn't a fan of particular other writers. On the other hand, over the years I've known a fair few teachers of English who don't read. They are marked out by those who do. The latter are able to give a wider context and deeper experience to any study of literature with the pupils in their charge. If you're an English teacher, you need to have half an eye on the Whitbreads, the Bookers and so on each year, and always have a book on the go. If teachers don't model reading, how can any of them expect pupils to read beyond what we give them in the classroom?

 

It's what we give them in the classroom that's been the big issue of discussion on Twitter and the world of educational bloggers all week. Last time, I blogged about Gove 'banning' US books from the new GCSE specifications, which had the odd distinction of being both a storm in a teacup and a dark portent of stormy waters ahead. Nothing's been 'banned', but certain books - or types of books - are no longer specified. In such a high stakes system, schools are going to teach to the minimum that they are expected to do. This always happens. Why take risks when pupils' performance at GCSE affects the status of the school and individual career prospects? For example, in the current GCSE English Literature coursework unit, pupils have to study a Shakespeare play (of the teacher's choosing) and compare it to something from the 'English Literary Heritage', which could be another Shakespeare play (could even be Marlowe), a novel, or a selection of poems. What too many teachers have done is compare the play to one or two poems and make glancing references to some others. That means, for many schools, pupils get through GCSE and don't read any prose other than Of Mice and Men (the other prose that could be chosen is in a section where the play - as brilliant as it is - An Inspector Calls is a choice, so most go for that). Expediency aside, this has always bothered me. On the other hand, I've seen some brilliant teaching comparing Macbeth to Great Expectations, and myself I have compared Hamlet and Henry V, and Henry V and Jekyll & Hyde. I've even used Jane Eyre. It is possible but not every teacher has the confidence to put a good cultural education and exposure to literature above expediency.

I once introduced a wider reading list for pupils, which a colleague refused to give them, saying "It might work in a private school but not here". 'Here' was a middle class comprehensive in a semi-rural middle class area. I wonder how she responds now, knowing that, in order to teach the new GCSE English Literature course well, pupils are going to have to read more widely than ever before. The school at which I currently work is one where we are reinventing our English curriculum through from Year (age 11) up to and including GCSE. Experience has taught me that the key to improving pupils' facility with reading and writing is to: read whole texts with them; concentrate on developing as many opportunities as possible for extended writing; show them how enriching, exciting and excellent books can be. That's it. It's not rocket science. That's for the science department to deal with.

So, teachers need to be Reading Role Models. I don't hold myself up as a paragon, but at the moment I'm reading: 'Pigeon English' by Stephen Kelman (it was on the shelf - I hadn't gotten around to it yet but it's now on the new GCSE spec so I have to do my research); 'More Than This' by Patrick Ness (a present from my wife - she knows me well); 'The Sunset Limited' by Cormac McCarthy and 'Supergods' by Grant Morrison (both from the library). I dip in and out but will probably finish one before the end of the weekend. With my primary school age daughter, I'm reading 'To The River Sea' by Eva Ibbotson that we got from the library, and it's enthralling. I talk to kids about my favourite books; when we study 'Of Mice and Men' I talk to them about similar or contrasting scenes and characters in 'The Red Pony', 'Grapes of Wrath' and so on. Sometimes they stare at me wide-eyed as if the notion of reading a book voluntarily for enjoyment is something that no one has introduced them to before. Sometimes they nod sagely. Sometimes they bury their heads in 'The Hunger Games' and ignore me. Me being a published writer is of mild interest only, which is as it should be.



So that brings, then, to the new GCSE specifications. We're probably going to go with AQA for lots of reasons, not least being that it's the most logically laid out and I can see a clear route for choosing good set texts and for developing wider reading. GCSE is usually taught in Years 10 and 11, but along with many schools, we will be starting the new course for our pupils in Year 9. They still can't sit any exams until the end of Year 11 at age 16, but we will start them on developing the skills and studying in the right way to prepare for that as early as possible. We're starting again with Years 7 and 8 as well to make sure there's proper range and progression. Every incoming Year 6/7 gets a free book from us to kick off our wider reading plan, including a fairly diverse group of authors, taking in Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson, Roald Dahl, Charlie Higson, Neil Gaiman, David Walliams and Dave Shelton, to name just a few. Each half term pupils will study a whole text. Year 9 will have 'Of Mice and Men' and a Shakespeare. We're about to look at whether we're starting the GCSE set texts in Year 9 so that pupils can read more than one from each section of the specification or whether we will use our imagination and bring in something of our own choice but of equal merit. One thing is for sure, as there is a requirement to compare texts and to respond to 'unseen' extracts, the most widely-read pupils will be the best prepared.

As for the set texts, across the three years we may well plump for Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet for our Shakespeares (they need to do one in Year 9 anyway). An Inspector Calls is a no-brainer, but it's in the same section as the aforesaid Pigeon English, Animal Farm, A Taste of Honey, Never Let Me Go and others - all great books. So the dilemma is whether to make a different choice or study more of these anyway. Most schools will take the view that there's no point as they'll only do an exam question on one of them. With three years to work with, I think we can do at least two and then narrow down closer to the exams. We no longer have course work to punctuate our time, so I think there is time. There's a lot of poetry too, as there currently is - and that's fine. It's impossible to judge the range of poems yet as we don't know what they are, but we will get there.

We also need to choose one from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, A Christmas Carol (nice but short and many schools do it lower down the school), Great Expectations, Jane Eyre (too long - great first ten or so chapters, boring middle, great ending), Pride and Prejudice, The Sign of Four (not quiiiiiiite enough to it although I love a bit of Holmes) - and Frankenstein (usually an 'A' level text - actually quite complicated but I know it inside out as I've - ahem - adapted it before). There's a big discussion to be had here. We need to cover male and female writers, male and female protagonists, whether it's any good or not. We'll get there.

We will get there. We just have to do some reading.




Monday, 26 May 2014

Calm Down. The Gove Bashing is Slightly Premature: Of Mice, Crucibles and Mockingbirds.

Before we get into this, let's establish some facts.
The Sunday Times have published this:

 

OCR have been slightly disingenuous here, as it's AQA, their competitor exam board, who have had Of Mice And Men, To Kill A Mockingbird and The Crucible as set texts at GCSE English Literature. I don't think OCR has them all as set texts currently. 90% of kids have studied Of Mice And Men maybe because the majority do AQA?

Before we get to my thoughts on this, below is the summary of the DFE (i.e. Gove) requirements that all exam boards are expected to follow in their new specifications (what we now call syllabuses):

GCSE English Language
  • The new English Language GCSE will encourage students to read a greater range of high quality, challenging literature and non-fiction text from a range of genres and types (from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries).
  • Reading and writing will be equally weighted in the new English Language GCSE.
  • The new English Language GCSE will have a greater focus on making sure that students are able to write clearly and accurately, in good Standard English. There will be an increased emphasis on spelling, punctuation and grammar including the use of vocabulary.
  • Tiers will be removed from GCSE English Language. This means that specifications and question papers will have to cover the full range of abilities.
  • Speaking and Listening will be assessed through endorsement (this change is being introduced to exams from summer 2014).  There will be a bigger emphasis on teaching students to become more confident in formal speaking.
GCSE English Literature
  • The new English Literature GCSE will encourage students to read a wide range of classic literature fluently with the assessment of:
    • A 19th century novel
    • A Shakespeare play
    • A selection of poetry since 1789 including representative Romantic poems
    • British fiction or drama from 1914 onwards.
  • Tiers will be removed from GCSE English Literature.  This means that specifications and question papers will have to cover the full range of abilities.
  • There will be increased assessment of unseen texts.
  • The quality of writing in the response to texts will be assessed.
Changes to both new English GCSEs
  • The study of literature will remain a compulsory part of the Key Stage 4 curriculum.
  • There will be new requirements to use more diverse and challenging writing skills, such as narrating and arguing.
  • All English GCSEs will have terminal assessment with no controlled assessment.    
  • a new grading system will be introduced. Students will be awarded a grade from 1 to 9, with 9 being the highest. Students will get a U where performance is below the minimum required to pass the GCSE
The above is all public and was published a few months ago. Teachers are currently waiting (and have been for over a year, after delays and delays and delays) for exam boards to publish their new specifications for GCSE, which will comply with the above rules.

Note that, yes, Gove has announced that he doesn't like 'Of Mice and Men' blah blah blah. I'm not going to bash Gove endlessly here. You can guess what my feelings are about what he does and how he says it. This post is Rumour Control. As ever, whenever any of the media report on education, they are spectacularly poorly informed (especially the BBC) and put the wrong twist on it.

The real 'scandal' is not that 'Of Mice and Men', 'To Kill A Mockingbird' and 'the Crucible' will no longer be set texts, but that Gove wants GCSE students to have a literary diet skewed far too much in the direction of the 18th and 19th century. We now live in the 21st. There's a 100 years of excellent literature that may be overlooked here, but the proof of the pudding will be when the specifications are actually published later this week.

Like a rock band's set list, sometimes you have to rest a classic. Two generations of people have studied and enjoyed 'Of Mice and Men' at school and they will continue to do so. But - and I say this from experience without judgement - a generation of English teachers have come up who have a fairly narrow experience of what has been and can be taught.

Romantic poetry? Great - bring it on. Blake is mental. Coleridge rocks. 19th century novels? Yes! There's a loophole in the current AQA English Literature spec where this can be avoided, so bring it on. Jane Eyre - gothic horror! Frankenstein, Dracula ditto! Dickens - a master of characterisation. Great Expectations - can't go wrong. I'll draw the line at Silas Marner or The Mill On The Floss but I'll give it a go. A good English teacher can make anything accessible and interesting. My Year 10 students loved comparing Hamlet and Henry V for their Eng Lit coursework. It's all in how you do it.

A completely unnecessary plug for mine and Staz Johnson's graphic novel adaptation of Dracula. You can get it from Amazon or direct from www.classicalcomics.com or, y'know, all good bookshops.


There's nothing yet that suggests there won't be non-British authors in the specifications, despite what the Sunday Times have scaremongered. What if we get Animal Farm? Great - as powerful an allegory for government suppression as any. Lord of the Flies? That's already there and may well stay, we don't know yet. What about more recent British classics? The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time? Already on some syllabuses. All is not lost, folks.

What we've actually lost is that 'The Crucible' is great for engaging bright girls, and 'To Kill A Mockingbird' has one of the best realised female narrators in literature. I'm more worried that we're going to lose strong narratives for females (not that girls don't like Lord of the Flies but hopefully you see what I mean).

Atticus Finch (the great Gregory Peck) and Scout, the narrator of 'To Kill A Mockingbird' - not only a moving treatise on bigotry but a powerful portrait of parenting and growing up without a mother.

Besides, kids are at school a long time. GCSE courses start in Year 10. Why not teach 'Of Mice and Men' and 'To Kill A Mockingbird' in Year 9?

After all, they haven't been banned.

Thanks, Mike.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Sunday Short Story: Bits And Bobs

No Sunday Short Story this week but here are two I made earlier: 'Bits' and 'Money'...

Also: http://www.theproglog.blogspot.co.uk/


A Roman coin. Well, a 'Bit' of 'Money'... photo (c) J Cobley 2014