Saturday, 31 May 2014

Reading Role Models and the new English GCSEs

We'll leave talking about the way the new GCSE English Language looks for another day. The topic of the moment is GCSE English Literature, separate and distinct qualifications, lest we not forget. Any good school curriculum will have them being taught together - we learn language through literature. Being a good reader helps you be a good writer. It really is that simple. I don't know of a single writer who doesn't read extensively, and who isn't a fan of particular other writers. On the other hand, over the years I've known a fair few teachers of English who don't read. They are marked out by those who do. The latter are able to give a wider context and deeper experience to any study of literature with the pupils in their charge. If you're an English teacher, you need to have half an eye on the Whitbreads, the Bookers and so on each year, and always have a book on the go. If teachers don't model reading, how can any of them expect pupils to read beyond what we give them in the classroom?

 

It's what we give them in the classroom that's been the big issue of discussion on Twitter and the world of educational bloggers all week. Last time, I blogged about Gove 'banning' US books from the new GCSE specifications, which had the odd distinction of being both a storm in a teacup and a dark portent of stormy waters ahead. Nothing's been 'banned', but certain books - or types of books - are no longer specified. In such a high stakes system, schools are going to teach to the minimum that they are expected to do. This always happens. Why take risks when pupils' performance at GCSE affects the status of the school and individual career prospects? For example, in the current GCSE English Literature coursework unit, pupils have to study a Shakespeare play (of the teacher's choosing) and compare it to something from the 'English Literary Heritage', which could be another Shakespeare play (could even be Marlowe), a novel, or a selection of poems. What too many teachers have done is compare the play to one or two poems and make glancing references to some others. That means, for many schools, pupils get through GCSE and don't read any prose other than Of Mice and Men (the other prose that could be chosen is in a section where the play - as brilliant as it is - An Inspector Calls is a choice, so most go for that). Expediency aside, this has always bothered me. On the other hand, I've seen some brilliant teaching comparing Macbeth to Great Expectations, and myself I have compared Hamlet and Henry V, and Henry V and Jekyll & Hyde. I've even used Jane Eyre. It is possible but not every teacher has the confidence to put a good cultural education and exposure to literature above expediency.

I once introduced a wider reading list for pupils, which a colleague refused to give them, saying "It might work in a private school but not here". 'Here' was a middle class comprehensive in a semi-rural middle class area. I wonder how she responds now, knowing that, in order to teach the new GCSE English Literature course well, pupils are going to have to read more widely than ever before. The school at which I currently work is one where we are reinventing our English curriculum through from Year (age 11) up to and including GCSE. Experience has taught me that the key to improving pupils' facility with reading and writing is to: read whole texts with them; concentrate on developing as many opportunities as possible for extended writing; show them how enriching, exciting and excellent books can be. That's it. It's not rocket science. That's for the science department to deal with.

So, teachers need to be Reading Role Models. I don't hold myself up as a paragon, but at the moment I'm reading: 'Pigeon English' by Stephen Kelman (it was on the shelf - I hadn't gotten around to it yet but it's now on the new GCSE spec so I have to do my research); 'More Than This' by Patrick Ness (a present from my wife - she knows me well); 'The Sunset Limited' by Cormac McCarthy and 'Supergods' by Grant Morrison (both from the library). I dip in and out but will probably finish one before the end of the weekend. With my primary school age daughter, I'm reading 'To The River Sea' by Eva Ibbotson that we got from the library, and it's enthralling. I talk to kids about my favourite books; when we study 'Of Mice and Men' I talk to them about similar or contrasting scenes and characters in 'The Red Pony', 'Grapes of Wrath' and so on. Sometimes they stare at me wide-eyed as if the notion of reading a book voluntarily for enjoyment is something that no one has introduced them to before. Sometimes they nod sagely. Sometimes they bury their heads in 'The Hunger Games' and ignore me. Me being a published writer is of mild interest only, which is as it should be.



So that brings, then, to the new GCSE specifications. We're probably going to go with AQA for lots of reasons, not least being that it's the most logically laid out and I can see a clear route for choosing good set texts and for developing wider reading. GCSE is usually taught in Years 10 and 11, but along with many schools, we will be starting the new course for our pupils in Year 9. They still can't sit any exams until the end of Year 11 at age 16, but we will start them on developing the skills and studying in the right way to prepare for that as early as possible. We're starting again with Years 7 and 8 as well to make sure there's proper range and progression. Every incoming Year 6/7 gets a free book from us to kick off our wider reading plan, including a fairly diverse group of authors, taking in Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson, Roald Dahl, Charlie Higson, Neil Gaiman, David Walliams and Dave Shelton, to name just a few. Each half term pupils will study a whole text. Year 9 will have 'Of Mice and Men' and a Shakespeare. We're about to look at whether we're starting the GCSE set texts in Year 9 so that pupils can read more than one from each section of the specification or whether we will use our imagination and bring in something of our own choice but of equal merit. One thing is for sure, as there is a requirement to compare texts and to respond to 'unseen' extracts, the most widely-read pupils will be the best prepared.

As for the set texts, across the three years we may well plump for Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet for our Shakespeares (they need to do one in Year 9 anyway). An Inspector Calls is a no-brainer, but it's in the same section as the aforesaid Pigeon English, Animal Farm, A Taste of Honey, Never Let Me Go and others - all great books. So the dilemma is whether to make a different choice or study more of these anyway. Most schools will take the view that there's no point as they'll only do an exam question on one of them. With three years to work with, I think we can do at least two and then narrow down closer to the exams. We no longer have course work to punctuate our time, so I think there is time. There's a lot of poetry too, as there currently is - and that's fine. It's impossible to judge the range of poems yet as we don't know what they are, but we will get there.

We also need to choose one from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, A Christmas Carol (nice but short and many schools do it lower down the school), Great Expectations, Jane Eyre (too long - great first ten or so chapters, boring middle, great ending), Pride and Prejudice, The Sign of Four (not quiiiiiiite enough to it although I love a bit of Holmes) - and Frankenstein (usually an 'A' level text - actually quite complicated but I know it inside out as I've - ahem - adapted it before). There's a big discussion to be had here. We need to cover male and female writers, male and female protagonists, whether it's any good or not. We'll get there.

We will get there. We just have to do some reading.




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