All change: new KS5 specifications

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

Studying:

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.

Studying:

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.

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