The new English Language GCSE: introducing 19th century fiction

Despite my delight at the inclusion of unseen 19th century fiction on the new English Language GCSE, I know that it will present some challenges to pupils. This means it will also present challenges to teachers in working out how pupils will access prose that differs greatly from the kind of prose written today.

With that in mind, I thought I’d share how a colleague and I have thought about introducing 19th century fiction to pupils starting the new GCSE this year.

We decided that, rather than concentrate on exam skills in the first instance, the initial study of 19th century fiction should be an introduction: we will look at conventions, literary devices and stylistic features.

So, whilst we are teaching for the Edexcel specification*, which differs from other specifications in some ways, this may still be useful as an introduction to 19th century writing if you are using other exam boards, or when introducing the English Literature GCSE 19th century text.

The challenge in reading 19th century fiction is, as mentioned earlier, that it does differ from the prose of today: there are stylistic, linguistic, grammatical differences, not to mention that the historical context means the content may be quite alien to pupils reading it today.

Of course, when talking about ’19th century fiction’ we are making reference to hundreds of different writers, from different countries all over the world, and from literary schools of different aesthetics, writing at different times over a period of 100 years, so we should acknowledge that it isn’t a homogenous mass and that each text will present it’s own separate challenges. However, there are certain similarities we can see across a varied range of texts, similarities that are a result of 19th century fiction’s placing within the wider literary tradition.

So here’s how we will be approaching the teaching of this topic.

After a lesson or two recapping sentence structures and composition, we’ll start by looking at a piece of 19th century prose fiction alongside a contemporary piece of writing and try and identify the differences. We’ve chosen the opening to Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and the opening to Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now (2004), if only because of the beautiful symmetry in seeing the opening words alongside each other.

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We’ll ask pupils to note how the writing is different, eliciting ideas on sentence length, syntax and language.

Before exploring these differences in detail, we’ll want pupils to understand a context for these changes, and will prompt them to think about this with these images:

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We’ll briefly introduce the idea of the rise of the ‘plain style‘ that we are familiar with today, and situate 19th century writing within the context of its readership. Pupils should note that, amongst other influences:

  • many writers of the era had enjoyed a classical liberal education and so were well versed in elaboration
  • a lot of Victorian fiction was aimed chiefly at educated women of leisure – an audience with nothing but time to kill were compelled by elaborate prose.
  • industrialisation and rise of mass media democratised written language – as more people could read, fiction began to appeal to a broader audience (one without a classical education).
  • speed of communication (rise of the telegraph) meant that brevity was king – letters would previously take weeks to arrive so more time was taken over elaboration.
  • perhaps increasing secularisation meant that the ornamental language of scriptures became less pervasive.
  • in the early 20th century, influential writers such as Ernest Hemingway openly promoted the plain style.

With a little historical context behind us, we’ll spend some lessons looking at:

  • syntax – how much of the 19th century writing may just seem strange or initially difficult because of word order, and how moving around that order can help pupils decipher it. Mark Miller‘s excellent post on syntax was hugely helpful in our planning here.
  • archaic language – how can pupils try to make sense of language that isn’t in regular use today? We’ll go through some basic reading strategies that pupils can use to overcome this. We’ll ask pupils to see if they can identify and root suffixes or prefixes within these archaic words and whether they can help with meaning. And we’ll encourage pupils to look at the word within the context of the writing. In this example, I’ll point out that ‘flags’ here doesn’t mean those cloth things:Slide22

Finally, we’ll spend a bit more time looking at the lengthy sentence structures, or more specifically:

  • periodic sentences – these are those long, winding sentences that withold the main clause to the end. They often have a number of subordinate clauses that build the sentence up, and are prevalent in 19th century writing. We’ll look at the effect of them and have pupils identify the main clause in examples. Here are some examples of periodic sentences, starting with a famous one from Nikolai Gogol’s excellent short story ‘The Overcoat’:
Slide02
The subordinate clause at the opening is eventually reconciled by the main clause at the end.
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A short periodic sentence from Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ – the main clause in red; subordinate clauses in green and blue.
From Melville's 'Moby Dick': the main clause is in red; the subordinate clauses are numbered.
From Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’: the main clause is in red; the subordinate clauses are numbered.

Once these key features have been explored, we decided that we would then explore other linguistic features of the writing across a range of extracts.

We sat down and looked at some extracts together and noticed how much of the writing utilised classical rhetorical devices. So we turned to our secret weapon… Mark Forsyth’s excellent book The Elements of Eloquence.

elements

We noticed how writers relied on figures of rhetoric throughout the extracts we’d selected (from Jane Austen, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Charlotte Brontë, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, amongst some already spoken of in this post). Probably something to with that classical liberal education that I mentioned earlier. We identified a number of these figures that were used more prolifically than others and chose to structure lessons around introducing these within the context of the writing.

The lessons from hereon in will follow a similar structure (note that this structure isn’t necessarily all one lesson – these stages will most likely take place over a couple of lessons):

  1. Introduce figure of rhetoric.
  2. Explore examples of the figure in literature, look at varieties of usage and identify the effects created by the writers in using it.
  3. Introduce an extract from 19th century fiction and explore: look at meaning and various linguistic features used by the writer and their effects; identify where the writer has used the figure of rhetoric introduced earlier and explore effects.
  4. After modelling by teacher, pupils will write a short response to the extract (we start with David Didau‘s Reading Skills Ladder as a structure), discussing the effects of identified language.
  5. Pupils will then be given a stimulus linked to the extract (image/video clip) and then a writing prompt to produce a piece of imaginative writing. They will be asked to try and use the figure of rhetoric they have just learned about and, as they work further through the unit, to use a variety of these as they accumulate in their writing ‘armoury’.

We’ve also produced a display of the linguistic devices pupils will need to know over the course of the scheme of work. The premise of this display, similarly to the one I produced on the elements of language before, is to only give memory cues to pupils: they don’t explain the devices, they merely give images and examples that should help pupils recall the figure in question. Below is an overview of the display, so you can see the figures of rhetoric pupils will explore over the unit. For lower ability pupils, you may choose to condense some of these figures into one device (i.e. isocolon and anaphora parallel structureslitotes and hyerbole emphatic expressionanadiplosis and diacope = repetition). Once this is fine-tuned, I’ll upload the display here.
Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 15.23.55

So this is how we’ll try to introduce 19th century fiction on the new English Language GCSE this year. It isn’t groundbreaking at all – I’m sure that this is a structure that many use. And I’m not saying it is the right way – I’m sure that our ideas will develop a lot as we teach it. But hopefully this will be of some use to some of you; moreover, we hope that you might be of some help in how this develops with any comments you have on it.

*(I think Edexcel slightly differs from other specifications, as Edexcel will always use 19th century extracts on Paper 1, whereas others such as AQA may draw from 19th, 20th and 21st century for their Paper 1 – correct me if I’m wrong.)

In defence of the Secret Teacher

(This is a slightly extended version of a post that was originally published on staffrm.io on 23rd August 2015)

Last week, I considered writing a blog post suggesting that there might actually be too much unsolicited generic advice for new teachers out there on Twitter, blogs, etc. My reasoning being that most new teachers will get their advice from mentors and peers in schools, and most of that advice is school-specific. They might also read a book or two on teaching, and they will probably seek out specific advice when they need it.

I decided that such a blog post was probably uncharitable to write: despite my concerns that such a gamut of advice might be overwhelming, as well as the often conflicting nature of different people’s advice, I think there probably isn’t too much harm in it.

And then the Secret Teacher wrote an article about having a really difficult NQT year. And what was the response from edu-Twitter, the realm of support and advice? Well it was largely one of condemnation: questioning whether the experience/writer was real; questioning whether the experience was representative; suspicion of anonymity; and upset that it didn’t represent balance.

The lack of support, advice or sympathy was rather conspicuous to me, especially coming from a profession that prides itself on such things.

I thought back to my concerns over the gamut of advice and it made me wonder why people write blogs and tweets of unsolicited advice when, at the moment someone is reaching out for support, they turn their back and question that person’s experience. Do we just write advice on our own terms, to make us feel good about ourselves? Okay, I’m probably being uncharitable again.

One of the reactions to Secret Teacher really astounds me – the one that says that “it isn’t representative of MY better experience”. Firstly, the Secret Teacher doesn’t claim to be representative. It is ONE column in ONE newspaper that gives an anonymous voice to someone who wants to share an experience without fear of reprisal, someone who wants to reach out. There are actually lots of affirming stories of teaching all over the web. Staffrm is full of great experiences for a start.

So imagine that one’s first response to Secret Teacher is that their experience needs to be counteracted with a different story, YOUR affirming story of teaching. It’s great that you want to share your wonderful experience. I’d say do it. But to do it AS A RESPONSE to the Secret Teacher, someone who this week was an NQT desperately struggling to stay in the job? Wow. That’s rubbing it in a bit, isn’t it? That’s riding roughshod over someone else’s experience and saying, “Great story, bro. Mine’s better.” By writing a #postapositive story as a response to the Secret Teacher – someone desperate for advice and support – you aren’t actually being positive at all. It’s a negative act.

I still think there is too much unsolicited advice out there. But someone here is soliciting advice. Why not give some? Why not #postapositive piece of advice to the Secret Teacher?

I’ve since been contacted by many people who have had similar experiences to this week’s Secret Teacher – they struggled through their NQT year with very little support. They empathise with exactly what the Secret Teacher was going through. But they made it, because they reached out and people gave them support.

So, here’s a question for you: what if that NQT story from this week wasn’t actually a negative story? What if it was just the beginning of a really great, affirming story of teaching? A story of a teacher who was really struggling, so they reached out to the teaching community and that community responded with support and advice that helped that teacher go on to a great career?

In condemning the Secret Teacher as part of a call to hear more ‘positive stories’ in teaching, you may actually be missing an opportunity to create those stories yourself.

JT Airlines – We’re a Great Way to Fall

Today is the day that successful people will tell you that they failed their A-levels and that, in spite of this, they have still become successful people.

Stories like this are great. They remind us that we don’t need to try hard for success. In fact, I think sooner or later we’ll probably realise that we don’t need A-levels or GCSEs at all and we can all just go boldly into the world and be hugely successful without education. Every single one of us.

So, on this day of A-level results, why don’t you celebrate whatever your results are. Because, pass or fail, you’ll probably be successful – and famous – anyway. And what’s the best way to celebrate? A holiday of course.

Yes, I know that they are expensive, but I’ve got an idea to make them cheaper: we cut out the landing. Not only will this save fuel and time, it will also save money on all the airport fees. Also, without landings we can just drop you off at your final destination, so you won’t need to transfer from the airport. Yes, with JT Airlines you can fly really cheaply because we’ll just throw you out of the plane directly above your hotel.

I know what you are thinking: “won’t the extra cost of parachutes just make up the expense anyway?” The answer is: NO – we won’t be using parachutes.

Oh, you think that might be dangerous? I beg to differ. Vesna Vulović would too.

You see, Vesna was a flight attendant for JAT Yugoslav Airlines. And on January 26th 1972, she was on flight 367 which tragically exploded over the village of Srbská Kamenice, in (the former) Czechoslovakia. A terrible tragedy indeed, but not entirely so for Vesna. She survived the reported fall of 33,333 ft (10,160 metres). Without a parachute.

But Vesna isn’t the only person to survive a great fall from an aircraft. Former Soviet Airforce lieutenant  Ivan Chisov survived a 23,000 ft fall; during World War II, American airman Alan Magee fell 22,000 ft from his B-17 Flying Fortress and survived, whilst RAF gunner Nicholas Alkemade just suffered a sprained leg from his 18,000 ft fall; and German biologist Juliane Koepcke survived a 10,000 ft fall from a commercial airliner.

So you can see – lots of people have successfully survived falls from 10,000 ft and above. So there’s really nothing to worry about.

My new airline will take away a lot of the expense from holidays to destinations near and far with this innovative approach. Now I just need to get the advertising right. I’m thinking maybe a picture of Vesna Vulović with the quote:

“If you’re worried about falling from a plane, be cheered by the fact that I fell 33,000 ft. And I’m currently sitting in a villa in St Tropez.”

Wait… what do you mean that’s terrible advice?