How do I revise English?

Around this time of year, “how do I revise for English?” becomes the clarion call of many a desperate student. It seems that no matter how many times I talk through precisely this question on a powerpoint slide in a lesson (from which students dutifully scribe notes), I still receive feedback from various tutors, mentors, parents and other interested parties who tell me: “she has no idea how to revise English.”

It struck me all too recently that perhaps the answer is to begin to “do” the revision in lesson time. It took me a long time to realize that much of teaching was a gradual recognition of things students did not know which I had assumed they did (my year 10, for example, who dropped the bombshell of not knowing what the word “vocabulary” meant, thus rendering half a year’s worth of feedback essentially meaningless (“is it ‘connectives’?”)). In the same way that I would not now set an essay for homework for any class that is not sixth form (as I did for the first homework for the first year 10 set 5 class I taught), I would not now send children into the wilderness to flail about with highlighters. We need to begin this in class.

Starting with year 13, I decided to show them the evidence. Last year, I read Make it Stick, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. One of the central messages in this text is that students learn by retrieving from their memories. So, as so many others have written at length about, not by re-reading, underlining and highlighting.

No: we need to learn by testing ourselves. This seems more straightforward when your subject is orientated around “facts.” Making a test on how many nitrates make up a – sorry, I don’t think I can finish the sentence without completely embarrassing myself. But you get the idea. English is a skill-based subject, right? How could you possibly quiz yourself?

Except when I think back on how I revised, I start to see a way this might work. I recall for GCSE English Language learning around forty-five key technical terms (oh, what I would give to retrieve that scrap of revision paper) using an alphabet-based mnemonic. Before even opening the paper, I wrote each word on the question paper. I then ticked off each term as I used it, thus, in my own mind, securing my top grade.

But it wasn’t until University that I really became self-test-super. By my final year, I had perfected the technique of mind-mapping everything I needed to know about a text (key quotes, critical quotes, key ideas, main concepts), hiding the mind-map, writing it again, checking back with the mind-map to see what I’d missed, adding the ones I’d missed in a different colour, and beginning again.

This seemed like a sensible way forward for my year 13s in preparation for their AQA Lit B “Texts and Genres” exam. Following our weekly “quote quiz” (in which I blank out some key words to test they have learned some quotes from one of the three texts, then go through each quote, writing in the words and reviewing the comments we might be able to make about them), I shared some of the wisdom from Make it Stick:

•       “Learning is deeper and more enduring if it is effortful.”

•       “The act of retrieving learning from memory has two profound benefits. One, it tells you what you know and don’t know, and therefore where to focus further study to improve the areas where you’re weak. Two, recalling what you have learned causes your brain to reconsolidate the memory, which strengthens its connections to what you already know and makes it easier for you to recall in the future”

•       “Retrieval practice—recalling facts or concepts or events from memory—is a more effective learning strategy than review by rereading. Flashcards are a simple example. Retrieval strengthens the memory and interrupts forgetting. A single, simple quiz after reading a text or hearing a lecture produces better learning and remembering than rereading the text or reviewing lecture notes.”

In order to begin, students would create a ten-question quiz on each text. I could then collate all of these into a handy “quiz-pack” for each student to assist in their revision. I advised students to use the quotes, but also the key critical ideas we were engaging with, and shared with them the mind-map idea.

This is all a work in progress, and not something I’ve previously done with classes. I do think it is worth considering, and I will report back on how year 13 find it. I’m planning to share the same concepts and ideas with year 11 later on in the year. I’ve posted the slides below exactly as I taught them to year 13.

Lesson 9 critical views Frankenstein 4.2.15

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Why study A-level English? An(other) assembly

When the Head of Sixth Form asked me to deliver an assembly to year 11 on why they should study A-level English, my first thought was one giant, panicked, bold and underlined “why?”

Why indeed? I went away and spent a couple of weeks pondering, thought of a few lame lines, and came back to admit defeat. Somewhat unadvisedly, I explained that I “had never really thought about why myself”, having myself “not thought things through and just chosen what felt right – that’s how I work.” Given that this person line manages me, admitting to my haphazard decision-making skills was probably an error.

I’m nothing if not honest. I did English Literature A-level because I had to; I was compelled to read and question; it was the only thing I loved and was any good at. No thinking needed.

Fortunately, I have a great line manager, who expertly guided me towards the light. I shared my clumsy “course outline” and “what looks good on your UCAS form” and he shook his head, saying: “what they really need is inspiration.” He referred me to this ad, suggesting that literature is about life: not the biology or the mechanics, but the human, and the emotional.

The assembly begins with the following on the screen, for students to ponder (or ignore) as they await the start of the session:

so much depends

I then showed my initial (lame) reasons for studying English Literature: universities rate it, it is more rigorous than English language, and many future careers await you. I then proceeded to explain that none of these are good reasons to choose to study Literature, drawing on the wisdom of Laura McInerney’s research showing that the idea of “facilitating subjects” is often not backed up by evidence. Despite few firm conclusions, I’d rather persuade my students to do three subjects they love and can achieve decent grades in, over any particular combination of subjects.

So, my opener for “why really study English Literature” was a fabulous quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

 We’ve all had that moment when reading when we suddenly acknowledge that our feelings, emotions and thoughts are not isolated and freak-like; we are connected to others in a tissue of shared feelings.

I then used Roald Dahl’s Matilda as a conduit for my next point (which was fairly similar to the entire assembly I blogged about last week here):

“The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives… She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”

I then returned to the initial poem, one of my favourites. I asked students whether they thought it was a poem; opinion seemed fairly split. This worked well for me. If this writing were on a toilet door, or in a fortune cookie, would they think it was a poem? Heads shook. Then I asked: what if it was in a poetry book? Confused faces.

William Carlos Williams calls this a poem. Some of you don’t call this a poem. Who matters more; the poet, or the reader? Or do neither of you matter? What about when the poem was written, or the cultural context? Was Williams trying to make a point about poetry? Or is the only aspect of importance the words themselves?

If you want answers, don’t study English Literature; there are no ticks and no crosses. But if you want to question and debate and argue and never be sure, you’re picking the right subject.

I closed the assembly by saying that if none of those arguments convinced them, I had one more: literature is beautiful. It makes you think things, and it makes you feel things. And I read Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice.” This is actually one of my year 11’s favourite poems (I expressed to year 11 that I was delighted that someone other than me has a favourite poem, only to have another come up to me afterwards and exclaim somewhat angrily: “Miss, I have a favourite poem too!”), which is partly why I chose it. It is also a wonderfully complex piece of word mastery that even the science teacher I practiced saying it to minutes before the assembly began could appreciate its clever intricacies (I’m not saying scientists aren’t capably of being poets. But it’s good to chase cross-curricular opinions and attitudes).

I then showed my initial (lame) reasons for studying English Literature: universities rate it, it is more rigorous than English language, and many future careers await you. I then proceeded to explain that none of these are good reasons to choose to study Literature, drawing on the wisdom of Laura McInerney’s research showing that the idea of “facilitating subjects” is often not backed up by evidence. Despite few firm conclusions, I’d rather persuade my students to do three subjects they love and can achieve decent grades in, over any particular combination of subjects.

So, my opener for “why really study English Literature” was a fabulous quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

 We’ve all had that moment when reading when we suddenly acknowledge that our feelings, emotions and thoughts are not isolated and freak-like; we are connected to others in a tissue of shared feelings.

I then used Roald Dahl’s Matilda as a conduit for my next point (which was fairly similar to the entire assembly I blogged about last week here):

“The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives… She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”

I then returned to the initial poem, one of my favourites. I asked students whether they thought it was a poem; opinion seemed fairly split. This worked well for me. If this writing were on a toilet door, or in a fortune cookie, would they think it was a poem? Heads shook. Then I asked: what if it was in a poetry book? Confused faces.

William Carlos Williams calls this a poem. Some of you don’t call this a poem. Who matters more; the poet, or the reader? Or do neither of you matter? What about when the poem was written, or the cultural context? Was Williams trying to make a point about poetry? Or is the only aspect of importance the words themselves?

If you want answers, don’t study English Literature; there are no ticks and no crosses. But if you want to question and debate and argue and never be sure, you’re picking the right subject.

I closed the assembly by saying that if none of those arguments convinced them, I had one more: literature is beautiful. It makes you think things, and it makes you feel things. And I read Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice.” This is actually one of my year 11’s favourite poems (I expressed to year 11 that I was delighted that someone other than me has a favourite poem, only to have another come up to me afterwards and exclaim somewhat angrily: “Miss, I have a favourite poem too!”), which is partly why I chose it. It is also a wonderfully complex piece of word mastery that even the science teacher I practiced saying it to minutes before the assembly began could appreciate its clever intricacies (I’m not saying scientists aren’t capably of being poets. But it’s good to chase cross-curricular opinions and attitudes).

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

PP Arial Why Study English Literartue

Beyond the curriculum: my lovely week

I’m not going to lie; I’ve had a lovely week.

It’s cathartic to moan, and I do a lot of that, and I’m also aware that the mega-enthusiasm I bring to many a table can be unbearable, particularly when my conversees have not had such a happy time.

Still, it has been a lovely week.

Aside from meeting up with my favourite teacher friends, teaching my regularly amazing and gorgeous classes and having a super invigorating department meeting with some of the other amazing teachers I am privileged to work with, a couple of lovely things happened in the English department.

First was that we began the peer mentoring programme with a trial group of 22 year 11 students. I’m going to write about this later in the process, but suffice it to say we had some lower achieving students paired with some higher achieving students, and the enthusiasm, earnestness and synergy happening in the room gave me goose-bumps. It was probably the most rewarding moment of my teaching career to date, but I’d rather not jinx its success by writing too soon.

My second treat was to teach an A-level “taster” lesson. We’ve got an incredible year 11 cohort, and would very much like them to take up English next year, preferably with ourselves. I won’t claim credit for the lesson content – that was down to my (oft-mentioned and amazing) line manager. I did stand up and deliver the thing, which is perhaps less important but means I got a lot of the credit.

The concept was a journey through literature. We began with some knowledge-mining – how much do students know about when things were written? The spectrum is astonishing; some students knew the exact year of publication of their favourite books, others thought Shakespeare wrote in the nineteenth century. We cleared up some misconceptions and started to introduce students to various periods, beginning with Old English, skipping through Chaucer, onto Spenser, Dryden, Wordsworth, Browning, T.S. Eliot and finishing with Bukowski. All short poems, or short excerpts of poems.

The students had to assign each text to a period, having first explored the key features of texts in those periods. They then did some grid work, analyzing the poems and beginning to interpret them.

I was frankly amazed at how enthusiastically the students powered through, and how focused they remained. There was a lot to take in; my trusted mentor warned me beforehand: “be careful – you want to excite them about English, not drown them.” It truly could have gone either way, and was perhaps a risky tactic to recruit students. Particularly as during their A-level course, they won’t be traversing every time period in literature, or reading every play or every seminal poem ever written, however much we would like them to.

Still, it was such fun. Without a set of Assessment Objectives, or mark schemes; without writing quotas or behaviour management (I took a “softly softly” approach, because they’d chosen to do an extra two lessons at the end of a long week, and let’s face it: they’d chosen to be there, so didn’t particularly need that much “managing”) I felt uplifted, in the way that sometimes happens when I go off on a tangent but they happen to learn something from that tangent.

It was empowering for the students, who have more of an outline of context than they had before. It was empowering for me, to look at difficult texts and posit interpretations; stretching and shrinking activities as their interest and mine dictated.

All in all, it was truly lovely, and I very much wish that all teaching of all lessons of all days of all children could be like this.

Endnote: I over-use the word lovely. My first year 8 class never let me forget it. I stand by my word choice.