Friday, 21 April 2017

A novel approach

I was a little bit excited when the new GCSEs were being compiled by the different exam boards. There was a big sell. I recall being at one event where I had representatives from different exam boards telling me about how their course is the right one for me. There was the odd difference, but the main selling points were focused on support and resources. This exam board offered exam papers. This exam board offered online materials. This exam board offered KS3 assessments. I admit I was persuaded by the last one. Ooo. It suggested to me some thorough planning and thought. The sad reality is I got watered down GCSE papers. Should KS3 just be watered down GCSE work? Should we be getting Year 7s to start with the English GCSE papers? After all, five year’s practice will help.

I should imagine the summer will create a big thinking point for teachers, and leaders, to look at how the each year prepares students. The GCSEs are not the only measure for developing a curriculum, but they are unfortunately a measuring stick to judge whether your curriculum is robust, challenging and effective enough. That’s why I think just repeating the assessments in Years 7,8 and 9 will not make improvements. We need some big ideas behind the curriculum. Now, I could become obsessed with the assessment objectives, yawn, and bring them down to Year 7. Come on class. Repeat after me: Assessment Objective One is to… Or, I could get students to read ‘A Christmas Carol annually. Come on Year 7, this is the book you will be studying for your GCSEs; we are going to study it every year until you have fully understood it.

In my school, we have units of work each year covering Shakespeare and Victorian Literature.

Shakespeare goes roughly like this:

Year 7 – Look at the context of Shakespeare’s theatre and the opening scenes of various plays 

Year 8 – Look at Macbeth and the structure of a scene

Year 9 – Look at Much Ado About Nothing / Tempest / Julius Caesar and explore a theme across the whole play

Year 10 – Look at Romeo and Juliet and study every scene in detail 

Year 11 – Revise Romeo and Juliet

We are building up knowledge and experience and confidence with handling of texts. We match this with Victorian Literature over the years to include several different characters from various Dickens novels, Jane Eyre and Great Expectations. Therefore, by the time students start GCSE they have covered Victorian attitudes towards childhood, education, class and poverty.

But, how do we plan for the language GCSEs? That’s a thought that is echoing and echoing in my head. How do we teach and prepare students for this new GCSE? The simple answer: get them to read lots and lots of fiction and non-fiction. But, surely, repeating the same questions again and again isn’t really developing students. Plus, it will make our curriculums dull and repetitive. That’s why this year I tried a different approach with teaching a novel.

This year, with my Year 7s, I am teaching ‘Treasure Island’. I am blooming loving it too. The last sentence of every chapter is a treat. Anyway, I decided to look at the big things:


Occasionally, I get this slide on and get students to explore the relationship between the two. And, we discuss and measure what we think….I think the chapter is mostly about the character. Nah, I think it is about the setting.

And, then, I raise the simple question: Why should the writer focus on this here?

The combination of the two aspects has produced some excellent discussions about the structuring of the story. It has made a group of Year 7s explore some clever structuring of the novel and created some interesting interpretations. They have been able to distinguish between chapters focusing on character and chapters on plot - and some that do both.  

We’ve had discussions on how the opening few chapters are mainly focused on mood and setting. Then, Stevenson introduces a series of chapters focusing on character. One character after another. We discussed how Stevenson presents us with a line-up of rogues, so when Long John Silver is introduced we are glad for somebody pleasant, friendly and not dull to enter Jim’s life. We also made interesting points about how setting is a massive component of the opening, yet the actual ‘Treasure Island’ is thrust to the side in favour of plot. Stevenson focuses so much on atmosphere in the opening chapters, but we get brief and glib descriptions in the middle of the book.

From this approach, I am starting think that we may need to look explicitly at how these elements interact. All too often we separate these elements of texts as separate components. We might zoom in on character. Or, we might focus on ideas or themes. We usually try to link these components at the end. So, how does the writer present the theme of deception? Surely, we need to have these components interacting continually. They are so reliant on each other.

What a writer is doing with setting, character, plot, mood and ideas at any one moment is important? The fact that one is more dominant than another at a specific moment is telling. However, students can’t see that unless we are discuss all at the same time. All too often, we helicopter from one aspect to another. Look at how Steinbeck uses character and setting in ‘Of Mice and Men’. Look at how Steinbeck uses character and ideas. Look at how Steinbeck uses all the components. All at the same time.

So rather than giving Year 7s watered down GCSE exam papers, we should give them GCSE thinking and ideas.

Teach the different types of characters and ways writers present characters.

Teach the way writers use settings for effect.

Teach the way writers create mood in a chapter.

Teach the different ways writers can develop the plot of a story.

Teach the way writers present events.

Teach the different ways writers present an idea.

But, while we are teaching these aspects, we should link them together. The writer has just introduced this character to us, but how does the character link to the setting? Does the character fit in or stand out with this setting? Is the setting important to the character? Will the character change the setting? Is the character affected by the setting? Why should the writer pick that setting?

The following GCSE questions should not be used to death.

How has the writer used language…?

How is the text structured for interest?

How far do you agree…. ?

Lesson 1 in Year 7 shouldn’t be about preparing for GCSEs. We should be focusing on the big ideas and not the small questions. The question might have a massive impact on lots of things in school, but we are simply narrowing the breadth of study if from Year 7 onwards we repeat the exam questions with different extracts from texts.

We have followed a fairly logical curriculum with prose study.

Year 7 - character

Year 8 -  setting

Year 9 -  themes  

Now, I am looking at what aspects I should interweave and explicitly teach over the different years. Teach explicitly aspects of character each year, developing the complexity as we go along. I am possibly looking at something like this:

Year 7 – Types of character / stock characters

Year 8 – Role of characters in narrative / minor or major characters / foils / symbolism   

Year 9 –Realism / development / character arcs / character journey

This is just my first thoughts, but I am sure I will change and reflect as things develop. At the same time, I will look at setting, plot, events, etc.   

I love a good story and English is the best subject for that: we create story tellers and consumers. We should be growing those lovers of story. Those little GCSE questions have the power to warp a big and vast curriculum. Think about your planning for next year. Think about the big ideas behind those questions and ignore those small questions. Teach character or setting and teach all aspects of it. We limit ourselves if we are driven by the question and the exam. How many times have students started an A-level course underprepared because the GCSE focus was so narrow? 
Thanks for reading,


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