I’ve never been entirely at ease teaching A-level. I’ve often joked I won’t consider myself a “real” teacher until I’ve taught Othello, and to some extent this is due to my own experience of English at KS5, which was, in a word, transformative. I’m not convinced that I’ve ever taught a year 12 or 13 class in that transformative manner, and this is partly (I think) down to the curriculum on offer.
I’ve taught Gatsby, but only in the tight confines of a coursework unit; I’ve taught Much Ado About Nothing and Waiting for Godot through the restrictive lens of comedy; I’ve taught Macbeth, Doctor Faustus and Frankenstein, mainly as a vehicle for understanding “the Gothic.” I don’t feel I’ve ever just taught a text.
For me, this is what English in the sixth form needs to be about: exploring a number of excellent texts in more depth than you ever thought possible. The issues I’ve had with the two specifications I have taught, WJEC and AQA Literature B, is that they want the focus to be ever narrower (the latter significantly more so that the former).
So it was with these issues to the forefront of my mind that I delved through the new KS5 specifications, looking for a bit of breadth.
Being part of a sixth form consortium, though, I was somewhat limited in the choices I would make. The consortium had taken the decision to enter 100% of students at the end of year 12 for the A/S qualification, meaning that any specification I chose had to be deeply co-teachable. Although every exam board claims its spec is co-teachable, in reality the difference in papers at A/S and A2 reveals this as a fallacy. If you need to re-teach the whole of year 12 to different assessment objectives or exam layout in year 13, you could be seriously disadvantaging those students.
(An aside: in my ideal world of never, we teach the A-level over two years, spending the first half of year 12 reading widely texts which are nowhere near the specification, just because; because it’s edifying to read a lot, and know different things about different texts, and to read without being relentlessly tested – but I digress.)
Aside from co-teachability, I wanted a spec which contained texts which I knew I could teach myself or oversee others teaching, but, more importantly, texts which had the potential to change students’ perceptions of literature and English and language and life, love, the world.
I’m excited about the two year overview. I’ve chosen AQA Literature A, and the only irritation is the requirement to study a post-2000 text. The simplicity of the specification is its real selling point; the exams are sensible and allow for wide reading and focus on the key issues and themes in the texts. Plus, it allows me to finally become a real English teacher – by teaching Othello, at last.
Year 12: Love Through the Ages
Othello: greatest Shakespeare play of all time (I acknowledge my own bias here)
The Great Gatsby: because if you don’t read about true, painful love when you’re seventeen, it will never feel as visceral in later years
Wuthering Heights: see above. (Also, “I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!”)
Poetry pre-1900: as I find the poems slightly more beautiful and therefore teachable than post-1900.
Year 13: Texts in Shared Contexts
I’ve gone for 1945 to the present day, as I felt this would open itself to more varied readings than those in the immediate aftermath of WWI.
A Streetcar Named Desire: the production in the Young Vic last year is without doubt the most incredible piece of theatre I have ever seen, and I’m hopeful there is a way to bring the year 13s to see a screening of it. Also, it’s a great play and one through which so many great American themes can be elicited.
Revolutionary Road: I love the idea of teaching this. I’m concerned the students will find the central concepts hard to relate to, but hopeful that they will respond to the inner turmoil and flawed characters.
Duffy: Feminine Gospels: Because they have to study something post-2000, and you can’t go far wrong with a poet who draws so richly on literary history.
Coursework unit: This will be determined by students’ personal choices and guided by the teacher who takes this unit.
Above is what we will teach: what of the how? I’ll come on to that over the coming weeks.