Sunday, 29 June 2014

Juggling the curriculum – Part 2 (now with extra poems)

Juggling the curriculum – Part 2 (now with extra poems)

This is the second of my blogs exploring some of the choices we are making with our new English curriculum. Like last week, this isn’t a showy blog about what we are doing, but more about the decision processes made or being made. I think I am on draft 45 now.  

What choices of texts are you using with the new curriculum?

I have watched for months now people experimenting with their choices of books for the new curriculum. I have been amazed by the selection of books. Impressed by the diversity and complexity. In the past, I have publicly stated that I think the class novel is an endangered species.  But, recently, under the guise of ‘cultural capital’ some people have off-loaded their undergraduate texts and squeezed them into the curriculum. The choice of a text is a complex thing. On one hand it is often led by a personal attachment to a text. What teacher is going to teach a text they hate out of choice? On the other hand, the choice is made by what seems to be clever.

Before people start suggesting that I am some kind of yokel that wants reading standards to decrease (I don’t), think about this: does removing a book from an A-Level syllabus and putting it in Year 8 show progress? Or, does it show the semblance of progress? You could give students the same poem in Year 7,8,9,10,11,12 and 13 and get different responses. Partly, this is due to the emotional maturity of the students. Plus, life experience changes our understanding of texts. Reading any Dickens novel as a parent is so different to how I used to read it. I get the social injustice. I get the mawkish portrayal of childhood. What was once silly, is now an important part of the understanding of what Charles Dickens was doing.

To misquote the Doctor, I am many people in my lifetime.  Each person I am (or was) reads the text differently. The assumption that a Year 8 will have the maturity to ‘get’ a text that has challenged people at university or at A-Level is problematic. 

I am all for raising the standard of texts. Give students good quality texts and raise the bar by all means, but ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, for example, needs the emotional understanding to appreciate the writing and story-telling. Plus, why are we raiding the back catalogue of A-Level and university texts to push and develop reading? There are hundreds of books published each year and we trot out the same few. 

The recent draft GCSE specs surprised a lot of people with some of the ‘safe’ choices made. But, I kind of agree with the choices. ( I didn’t at the time). They are texts that surpass the ages. They are good texts. Good stories. They work on a number of different levels. They are engaging. They are complex and yet simple at the same time. They are not purposefully obscure or subtle. In fact, they are very concrete with their ideas and writing.

Decision 1:  Select texts appropriate to the students and balance modern and pre-1914 texts.

We are going to teach the following texts over the years:

Year 7  - Jane Eyre

Year 8 – Great Expectations

Year 9 – Gothic text ( pre-1914)  or Dystopian fiction

In addition to these texts, we are going to teach another modern novel. One from the cupboard. The reasoning behind this is that we want to have a balance of reading. My interpretation of the new curriculum is that the breadth of texts needs to be there, but there also needs to be the enjoyment of texts. Now, I am not a rose-tinted English teacher. Not all students will be enthused by a pre- 1914 text so we are creating a balance between the two. We are not ditching all the usually class readers, but we might change some. However, the class readers are going to be chosen for enjoyment and pace, rather than suitability to write an essay on.

It is clear that the new curriculum focuses on reading for enjoyment. It mentions it a bit so we are looking at ways to develop that pleasure. If every text they read in the classroom is a literary gem and produced by someone from the canon, then students will be left with a misguided understanding of reading. Reading is great no matter what you read. Therefore, rather than have some form of elitism in reading – those that moan about Of Mice and Men’s disappearance on exams lists often decry the concept of having wall to wall Victorian novels. 

The class readers are to promote reading and develop some skills such as reading strategies and structuring. Their pace and simplicity dictates that they can be moved through quickly. Plus, they allow for one of the author studies to take place. The other will be the Victorian novel.

Take Year 7:

We are going to use the following three topics closely together.

Heroes and villains                              Jane Eyre                                                         Modern novel

The first topic for Year 7s will help them develop their analysis of extracts and solidify their understanding of a hero and a villain. Then, Jane Eyre will be an opportunity for students to see how a writer presents a hero and villain in a text. Finally, in their reading of the modern novel students will be able to see how writers today use heroes and villains in the story telling.

The connection of ideas and development of understanding is important, but throughout the whole thing student will be making constant references to previous texts to develop their understanding.

What about other types of text such as non-fiction and poetry?

I have been concerned about the way we teach non-fiction for a long time. Often, it is reduced to the triplets. We are writing to persuade this term, for example. The use of themes has helped some other departments to organise their curriculums. For us, we are having distinct areas of non-fiction writing, but these will focus on the effect of writing. Rather than see writing as clear components, we are looking at it from the different effects. So, for example, students might look at writing to shock or amuse. Through those effects students will look at a range of texts some fiction and some non-fiction. The idea being that students can compare approaches rather than reduce everything to a set list of things. Students will be able to see that choices can be made and that there are so many choices to be made as writers. 

Decision 2: Create a poetry anthology for each year group.

Poetry is one of those subjective things that often people can never agree with. One of the great (I say that with tongue firmly in check) things about the exam system is the poetry anthology. A collection of eclectic poems for teachers to use. This time, I am going to create an anthology for each year group focusing on a particular aspects and, therefore, develop students understanding of thematic approaches from the start. Of course, the poems will be from a wide range of poets.

Year 7 – Events

Year 8 – Settings

Year – 9  Voices from past and present 

There will only be a few poems in the anthology, but all students will have a similar experience and that this shared experience will help teachers the following year. Remember the poem X. Here it is again. Now, what do you think of it?

How are dealing with the author study aspect of the curriculum?

One of the challenging things for any department is the stopping of students pigeonholing aspects. Things tend to get clumped together as units. We are doing the novel. We are doing poetry. In an attempt to do away with this, we are going to use short stories from an author.

Across the year, students are going to study a collection of short stories by an author. The hope is that students will study an author for a longer period and spend time revisiting their work over the year. Putting all the short stories together in one term would be fine, but it wouldn’t allow for reflection and revisiting the stories again and again. Hopefully, at the end of a term a teacher will explore a short story and students will build connections to a story that they read in a previous term. Or, reread the previous story and evaluate it in relation to a new short story.

Year 8: Tales of the Unexpected by Roald Dahl

Year 9: Ray Bradbury short stories

Decision 3: Use short stories as an extra way to get an author study in.

Alongside a modern and a pre-1914 text, students will experience another author through the year.

By this time next week, I am sure I will have changed everything again. Oh well. I have until September to get things sorted.

Thanks for reading,

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