Developing interpretations of a text can be quite challenging at times. My years of teaching and studying make interpreting a texts an automatic process for me, yet for students it isn’t an obvious thing. For this year, I am making a conscious effort to develop the discussion of ideas (AO1) in the literature texts.
Our students are really good at the A02 (language choices) but without the A01 discussion their answers are weak. Of course, we want a seamless blend of idea, choices and context, and the good students marry all these three elements up together in a little package of an essay. The problem comes with the way that students analyse a text.
They search for something concrete.
That’s why students spot things like alliteration and similes. They are easy to identify. I have endless students who can spot alliteration from thirty paces away from the text, yet they can’t explain them or their impact. The student then tries for four sentences to explain its use. During that time, they might chuck in ‘suggest’ or ‘shows’ to try to extend the idea. Sadly, they often default to simplistic emotions or link the alliteration to a plot element. It is hard. That’s why a lot of students spend most of their time waffling on and the rest of the time spotting language features. The relationship between ideas and the writer’s choices is a difficult one. And, one that we, as teachers, don’t help with that much.
Our emphasis focuses too much on the choices and not enough on the ideas. Take a text book and you’ll see what I mean. The majority of questions focus on technique or choice spotting. Why did the writer use X? What is the impact of the simile in the last line? Find three examples of repetition.
When we ask, ‘What is interesting about this poem?’, we are asking them to spot choices. I’d argue that students are really good at spotting things. In fact, if there is one thing a student is exceptionally good at in English is spotting things. The thing might not be a high level choice, but any student can spot something. Only a few students will be able to spot the change between passive and active tense.
We are repeating the process again and again in English. We are reinforcing a cognitive process. One that I think isn’t helpful and could be damaging. Why? Well, it gives students a false understanding of a text. They think by spotting X, D and Y, they have understood the text and the writer’s intent. It gives students a false understanding of the subject too. Naturally, we like to simplify things, but when the most common process in English is spotting choices and a student can spot things, they see they have achieved mastery in the subject. That’s why we need to create ‘idea heavy’ curriculums. I applaud schools where they have used complex texts with students, but the emphasis has been on reliving a teacher’s degree and digging out the books they have had on their bookcase since their first taste of Aftershock. We need idea heavy texts. Yes, they should have some linguistic complexity, but they should introduce ideas and complex ideas.
With my current Year 10, I have placed a greater level of emphasis. We look at the ideas first, then, quite a while later, we look at the techniques and choices the writer uses. That’s why ‘present’ has been the most important word of any of the literature questions. It doesn’t mean techniques. It means ideas to me. What ideas is the writer showing us?
How does Dickens present death in the extract?
The room was very dark, too dark to be observed with any accuracy, though Scrooge glanced round it in obedience to a secret impulse, anxious to know what kind of room it was. A pale light, rising in the outer air, fell straight upon the bed; and on it, plundered and bereft, unwatched, unwept, uncared for, was the body of this man.
Scrooge glanced towards the Phantom. Its steady hand was pointed to the head. The cover was so carelessly adjusted that the slightest raising of it, the motion of a finger upon Scrooge's part, would have disclosed the face. He thought of it, felt how easy it would be to do, and longed to do it; but had no more power to withdraw the veil than to dismiss the spectre at his side.
Oh cold, cold, rigid, dreadful Death, set up thine altar here, and dress it with such terrors as thou hast at thy command: for this is thy dominion. But of the loved, revered, and honoured head, thou canst not turn one hair to thy dread purposes, or make one feature odious. It is not that the hand is heavy and will fall down when released; it is not that the heart and pulse are still; but that the hand was open, generous, and true; the heart brave, warm, and tender; and the pulse a man's. Strike, Shadow, strike. And see his good deeds springing from the wound, to sow the world with life immortal.
No voice pronounced these words in Scrooge's ears, and yet he heard them when he looked upon the bed. He thought, if this man could be raised up now, what would be his foremost thoughts. Avarice, hard-dealing, griping cares. They have brought him to a rich end, truly.
He lay, in the dark empty house, with not a man, a woman, or a child, to say that he was kind to me in this or that, and for the memory of one kind word I will be kind to him. A cat was tearing at the door, and there was a sound of gnawing rats beneath the hearth-stone. What they wanted in the room of death, and why they were so restless and disturbed, Scrooge did not dare to think.
`Spirit.' he said,' this is a fearful place. In leaving it, I shall not leave its lesson, trust me. Let us go.'
Still the Ghost pointed with an unmoved finger to the head.
`I understand you,' Scrooge returned,' and I would do it, if I could. But I have not the power, Spirit. I have not the power.'
Again it seemed to look upon him.
`If there is any person in the town, who feels emotion caused by this man's death,' said Scrooge quite agonised, `show that person to me, Spirit, I beseech you.'
The Phantom spread its dark robe before him for a moment, like a wing; and withdrawing it, revealed a room by daylight, where a mother and her children were.
The wording of the exam doesn’t help. It would be so much better if the questions were written like this:
Based on the extract, what is the writer teaching us about death?
How does he teach us this?
The first question is important and often neglected. That’s why I have placed more focus on the ‘present’ part of the question this year. Here’s what some of my students said in response to the question.
Dickens presents death as
• Easily ignored
• Mystery nobody knows about
• Benefits the worst people whilst hurting the nicest
• Part of life
• Unstoppable force
• Hurtful but everyday thing
• When you are truly alone
• Miserable and lonely
• Lonely because of your actions
• Ends the happiness of Christmas
We then spent ages writing sentences featuring ‘Dickens presents death as…’
Dickens presents death as a hurtful but everyday thing.
Dickens presents death as an obsessive, dark feeling that you instantly feel drawn to.
Dickens presents death as lonely experience that is the consequence of your actions.
Dickens presents death as an emotionless and hated force that cannot be reasoned with.
Dickens presents death as harsh and inevitable.
Dickens presents death as binding.
Dickens presents death as a dark, cold and mysterious thing that no-one really knows about.
Dickens presents death as a time when you are truly alone, even if you have a family.
Dickens presents death as secretive and mysterious.
I have got into the habit of typing up ideas now rather than good paragraphs. Apart from modelling a good example, a paragraph has limited use in terms of developing an idea. Give students a list of ideas gives them possible options for another question or seeds for new ideas. We spent time looking at the ideas presented and thinking if we agreed with the comment or not. If so, where is the evidence in the book?
We also spent time looking at the writing of the sentences. Looking at how adjectives and abstract nouns add to the interpretation of the text. Furthermore, we looked at listing and how a simple conjunction could add to or develop the idea. It X but Y. We see Z yet Y is really happening.
We then after a few lessons built those sentences up. Here's one example:
Dickens presents death as fragile and invisible. The writer’s use of repetition of the adjective ‘little’ and the name Tiny Tim highlight how weak and fragile people are, and how when they die they break the family and break people. The loud, noisy family become ‘silent’. Dickens uses sound as a metaphor of life and happiness. The louder you are the more alive you are. Cratchit is also metaphorically broken and possibly cannot be mended after Tiny Tim’s death. Victorians would have developed a realistic view of life after the death of a loved one, so possibly Dickens uses the Cratchits to show us a key part of growing up in Victorian London, understanding that death is around every corner. The fact that Dickens doesn’t show any specific deaths is important. It isn’t about the physical death that is important, but the emotional and mental breakdown.
Which came first: the technique or the idea? The idea. So that’s what we should be focusing on. If we want students to have ideas, we have to cram their lessons with ideas. We need to get them writing their own ideas and get them to share and discuss ideas. I’d rather have an idea rich lesson than a technique rich lesson.
Thanks for reading,