Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

Something must have happened.

The world shifted on its orbit, perhaps; the polarity of our planet reversed; the sky fallen…

Michael Gove has tinkered with the GCSE syllabus (no change there then!) but has done it with… wait for it… some degree of consultation and for year groups not currently half way through their course! I’m almost grateful for this! And feel guilty!

Is this what Stockholm Syndrome feels like?

So there are various sources of information linked below:
The TES
Ofqual
The BBC and
the DfE

So, my first question is: when do these reforms take place?

They are described for first teaching in 2015 (at least for English Literature and English Language and Maths) which would mean when our current Year 8s hit Year 10, they will be subject to these. Twenty months to go.

Grades will be replaced with numerical .. well… numerical grades I suppose. The current 8 pass grades of A*-G will be replaced with 9 pass grades of 1-9. I see nothing terribly objectionable in that… but also nothing terribly constructive. I don’t see the point. Why? It replaces one arbitrary ladder with another. Are we meant to believe that schools will not simply replace the C/D border trauma with an equally traumatic 5/6 border – or whichever grades become synonymous with that border.

Tiered exams will disappear. Ok. Again, no massive issues in principle if I have confidence that the exam boards have the ability to set questions which genuinely challenge the most able to differentiate between the 9s and 8s and give the 1s and 2s a fair chance. And if I have confidence that a marker will be able to give full credit to the full range of marks. And I should have that confidence – after all, we as teachers are doing it day-in day-out – but, after the last two years’ results, I’m sorry but I just don’t.

Coursework and Controlled Assessments are removed in favour of a 100% terminal exam.

Now, this I do object to!

English is not apt for exams in my humble opinion. The key processes of reading and writing – by their very nature – are slow and ruminative and reflective. I spend time teaching kids to craft each sentence, to carefully make lexical choices, to control their writing, to balance control with a certain responsiveness to the text which they are creating.

For heaven’s sake, I even review, amend and redraft text messages before I send them!

To force either creative or analytical responses in – let’s say – forty-five minutes will not result in either careful or thoughtful or effective writing. What it will result in is content-led teaching in Literature where “the book” is taught rather than the skills of reading. Feature spotting. Writing toolkits. Similes shoehorned in; metaphors wrenched out of shape; alliteration abounding out of control. Skills demonstrated with no real understanding of whether they work or not.

It has been an eye opener doing coursework for the iGCSE alongside CAs for OCR GCSE and C/D students in controlled assessments are producing C/B quality work as coursework. I know there’s the risk that parents give undue help. But – notice the carefully chosen co-ordinating conjunction to open the sentence because it ‘fits’ with my current and somewhat conversational tone even though “However” might be more technically correct – you see, I think like this! – But some kids will just work better at home with nagging parents and away from other kids.

What other changes will we see?

More “whole book” testing. How can that be consistent with exam situations?

More 19th century novels and Romantic poetry. Well, fair enough! There’s great stuff there. Blake remains my favourite poet! But there’s a treasure trove of modern literary gems: Purple Hibiscus, Things Fall Apart, Mister Pip, Tsotsi. Yes, I do have a penchant for post-colonial literature! And I fear from the information released thus far that the curriculum is increasingly like the government: white, male, middle class, bound to the safety of the ‘classics’ and worryingly Anglo-centric!

And why is it that every time the BBC report an education article they use the same picture of the same exam hall every time?

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So, now Mr Gove seeks to recreate the GCSE specification. Again.

Now there are many things I just don’t get about Michael Gove. How he holds down a job; how anyone else manages to work with him; how no-one has discovered that he is, in fact, an alien probe sent to infiltrate us; how on earth he got a job in education when he appears to denigrate and despise both pupils and teachers.

However, more specifically, how his proposals for GCSE reform make any kind of sense at all.

Firstly, the headline that the media focused on that students will undertake

detailed study of a range of high quality, intellectually challenging, and substantial whole texts, which must include:
 at least one play by Shakespeare
 a selection of representative Romantic poetry
 at least one nineteenth-century novel
 a selection of poetry since 1850
 British fiction or drama since the First World War.

I see nothing inherently objectionable in this, to be fair to Mr Gove. There are some brilliant texts available within those criteria. The nineteenth century novel is, perhaps, a tad daunting and I fear there may be a sales run on A Christmas Carol! But there’s an awful lot of literature of equal weight, interest and value missing from the list! I suppose we’ll have to wait and see what options are made available to us.

What the DfE have also produced, however, includes Assessment Objectives and weightings.

These are worth a read for all Heads of English because there is a significant change here!

Let’s take Language first. This is the list of future AOs.

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and a list if the current AOs, drawn from the OCR specification.

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Firstly, speaking and listening is shunted out entirely. How do students, people, adults, professionals communicate in the majority of the time? By speaking? And by listening? Surely by removing this from the qualification, you devalue and denigrate the most critical communication skill that we have and you run the risk of de-skulking a generation of children in oral communication skills.

Now, before anyone complains, yes I know that Spoken Language will remain as a compulsory element of the GCSE – although note the absence of listening from its new title! – because the proposal states

While it is compulsory for students to demonstrate the skills in AO4 in spoken language it will not count towards the overall grade awarded.

It will not count but is compulsory. I’m sorry, but that is a fudge, a sop.

What might be the logic behind this? I suspect it is because lots of students – and perhaps mainly boys – do well in this unit. Anecdotally, how many parents evenings have I had when I’ve explained that Little Johnny is articulate and engaging verbally but cannot put his thoughts coherently into writing? How many databases show C grade written work complemented by B grade oral work?

So he removes it?

He removes the one area where many children excel and receive the validation that they can achieve in English.

How? What? Why? It is incomprehensible to me.

Especially as the iGCSE which the DfE has confirmed to me will be accredited at least until 2015 and rumour suggests into 2016 as well (thereby overlapping the no-speaking-and-listening, 100% terminal exam GCSE) does include Speaking and Listening at 20% weighting and Writing Coursework at 40%.

Is it any wonder that CIE experienced a 300% increase in entries this year?

If we look at writing, the score for AO4(iii), the sentence structures, punctuation and grammar. Currently it accounts for 33% of the writing grade, which comprises 35% of the overall grade. Therefore AO4(iii) comprise 11.55% of the overall final grade.

The equivalent Assessment Objective in the new GCSE is worth 40% overall of which half derives from sentence structures, punctuation, grammar and spelling. That raises the weight attached to that skill from 11.55% overall to 20%, nearly doubling it.

How will schools respond?

There is a Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling test at KS2 now but I don’t know how many Secondaries would rely on that?

I am thinking of introducing a two week grammar unit full of games and fun activities across the board at the start of the September term and repeating it every single September to reinforce and develop students’ skills as well as demonstrate progress. This would also upskill my staff in grammar and provide them with a range of short snappy fun grammar activities that would be ideal as starters throughout the year.

And AO1 includes some very low-order skills on Bloom’s taxonomy: retrieve information; summarise… These lower order skills simply do not appear on the current AO list: “selecting material appropriate to purpose” is qualitatively different and more challenging than “retrieve information”.

There is also the introduction of the skill of synthesise: to be able to “evaluate … and synthesise [information] for specific purposes”. Another explicitly new skill and, here, at the top if Bloom’s taxonomy! It is very close to the iGCSE Directed Writing component (or as I want to rephrase it, Text Transformation) where students read a travelogue (for example) and then imagine they are the writer and write a letter home persuading a relative to visit the are using the attitudes and views and information of the original article.

Now, don’t get me wrong! I like this skill! Actually, I like it a lot! But it is a higher order skill and, if it is combined with a Draconian approach to grammar and sentence structures and divorced from Speaking and Listening, it could price a real challenge to achieve.

Turning to Literature, the proposed Assessment Objectives are

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and the current equivalents are

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The new AO1, to read for comprehension is again a very low order skill! Low enough not to be currently tested at all! To describe features of a text currently would attract some (very few) marks in Language but here could attract up to 20% of the final grade in Literature.

The new AO2 basically comprises all the current AOs together and is only worth 50%, 20% of which must derive from unseen texts. Now I do like that: it means we have to teach students how to read literary texts rather than how to read this book which is great! That content-driven focus has been the worst part of the current Literature course. But, students will need a wide range of reading across genres and contexts to be able to do so. I suspect this unseen element will focus on poetry for exactly that reason of timing.

But AO3 is sneaky: 30% of marks will be made available for writing – presumably essays – in a literary manner. 30%.

Again, how schools react to that will be interesting. I’m thinking that, again, an explicit essay writing unit, repeated throughout the course, explicitly teaching essays as a persuasive text could become embedded in my Department.

Anyway, the links to these documents are below:
Language;
Literature.

One question for you though, both these DfE documents capitalise English but not language or literature. Surely it should be! It is the name of the course, the name of the examination, the name of the qualification. It is a proper noun, isn’t it?

And finally, for all fans of Michael Gove, some delightful pictures:

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Compare the emotions portrayed in Mrs Lazarus and Answer by Carol Anne Duffy.

Have you included:

1.       Overview

Both poems interweave ideas of love and death;

Both poems are personal and from a first person point of view – although Mrs Lazarus is narrative whereas Answer is a dramatic monologue;

The love in Answer is immutable, eternal and defeats death; the love in Mrs Lazarus changes and wanes on the death of her husband.

2.       Sensuality Both women display a high degree of sensuality in their language. Duffy shows women to be sensual and sexual in their relationships with men.

Answer:

  • Within the formality and rigidity of the structure, Duffy refers to the sensual pleasures of love:
    “kiss… tongue… heart… arms… mouth…”

Mrs Lazarus

  • The dead husband is reduced throughout the poem to “the shrunk size of a snapshot”, until “His scent” vacated the home. The husband’s presence reduced to a mere sense-perception, suggesting the warmth of the love they had shared
  • The sensuality of her shock on touching “a man’s strength”

 3.       Passion Both women are passionate in their loving

Answer:

  • The imagery of fire and “hissing flame” and the “small coal glowing” suggests passion
  • The choice of verbs suggests passion: “roaring, foaming… spinning… waves torn from my breath”
  • A high calibre student may make links from here also to Anne Hathaway as another example of a powerfully passionate and sensual character, particularly in the interplay of language and sensuality.

Mrs Lazarus

  • The passion of her grief is extreme in her passionate choice of verbs: “ripped… howled, shrieked, clawed”
  • The alliteration of “Gone home. Gutted the place” echoes the description of her passionately having “retched” his name. almost onomatopoeic.
  • A high calibre student may gon on and comment on the echoes here of Havisham but a pain from which Mrs Lazarus escapes whereas Mrs Havisham does not.

4.       The Partner

Answer:

  • The image of her lover’s kiss as a “fossil” suggests that even if his love were long dead (literally or emotionally) her love for him would endure
  • The image of the partner being “sealed up” or “locked” in ice suggests a form of death or absence;
  • The image of the partner’s body as “only breeze against my dress” suggests again an absence.
  • Notice how the speaker’s love remains as emphatic as ever in the repeated “yes yes” even if unrequited

Mrs Lazarus

  • His “dwindling” from husband to
  • “snapshot”, to
  • a “name” which no longer worked as a “spell” to conjure up the image of his “face”,
  • the eventual loss of the final physical evidence of his existence as the “last hair on his head / floated out from a book” and his scent was lost,
  • to just the “zero” of the wedding ring – notice the use of the physical shape of the ring to symbolising not the eternity of love as is traditional but the death of love and its reduction to nothing,
  • to “legend, language” and eventually
  • “memory”, devoid of emotion and allowing her to move on.
  • Notice that the process is one allowing her to become “healed” not of abandoning her husband
  • Notice the “horror” she feels when she finds him resurrected: “rotting shroud, moist and dishevelled”
  • Not simply a visceral horror of the reanimated rotting corpse (more zombie than resurrection) but also the emotional horror of facing the man she has moved on from, rendering him a mere “cuckold”

 5.       Conclusion

Which version of love seems most realistic or healthy?

A love that continues despite the death or absence or withdrawal of the lover sounds romantic, but can become obsessive, self-defeating and ultimately a form of “death” itself.

A passionate love that feels desolation and grief but allows the surviving partner to heal seems much more healthy.

A more challenging comparison this time, perhaps? Mrs Lazarus and Answer.

Mrs Lazarus

I had grieved. I had wept for a night and a day
over my loss, ripped the cloth I was married in
from my breasts, howled, shrieked, clawed
at the burial stones until my hands bled, retched
his name over and over again, dead, dead.

Gone home. Gutted the place. Slept in a single cot,
widow, one empty glove, white femur
in the dust, half. Stuffed dark suits
into black bags, shuffled in a dead man’s shoes,
noosed the double knot of a tie around my bare neck,

gaunt nun in the mirror, touching herself. I learnt
the Stations of Bereavement, the icon of my face
in each bleak frame; but all those months
he was going away from me, dwindling
to the shrunk size of a snapshot, going,

going. Till his name was no longer a certain spell
for his face. The last hair on his head
floated out from a book. His scent went from the house.
The will was read. See, he was vanishing
to the small zero held by the gold of my ring.

Then he was gone. Then he was legend, language;
my arm on the arm of the schoolteacher-the shock
of a man’s strength under the sleeve of his coat-
along the hedgerows. But I was faithful
for as long as it took. Until he was memory.

So I could stand that evening in the field
in a shawl of fine air, healed, able
to watch the edge of the moon occur to the sky
and a hare thump from a hedge; then notice
the village men running towards me, shouting,

behind them the women and children, barking dogs,
and I knew. I knew by the sly light
on the blacksmith’s face, the shrill eyes
of the barmaid, the sudden hands bearing me
into the hot tang of the crowd parting before me.

He lived. I saw the horror on his face.
I heard his mother’s crazy song. I breathed
his stench; my bridegroom in his rotting shroud,
moist and dishevelled from the grave’s slack chew,
croaking his cuckold name, disinherited, out of his time.

Answer

If you were made of stone,
your kiss a fossil sealed up in your lips,
your eyes a sightless marble to my touch,
your grey hands pooling raindrops for the birds,
your long legs cold as rivers locked in ice,
if you were stone, if you were made of stone, yes, yes.

If you were made of fire,
your head a wild Medusa hissing flame,
your tongue a red-hot poker in your throat,
your heart a small coal glowing in your chest,
your fingers burning pungent brands on flesh,
if you were fire, if you were made of fire, yes, yes.

If you were made of water,
your voice a roaring, foaming waterfall,
your arms a whirlpool spinning me around,
your breast a deep, dark lake nursing the drowned,
your mouth an ocean, waves torn from your breath,
if you were water, if you were made of water, yes, yes.

If you were made of air,
your face empty and infinite as sky,
your words a wind with litter for its nouns,
your movements sudden gusts among the clouds,
your body only breeze against my dress,
if you were air, if you were made of air, yes, yes.

If you were made of air, if you were air,
if you were made of water, if you were water,
if you were made of fire, if you were fire,
if you were made of stone, if you were stone,
or if you were none of these, but really death,
the answer is yes, yes.

Okay, I have asked my Year 11s to write an essay in exam conditions on these poems and this title.

It is so close to the exam, I clearly need to give them feedback but no longer wish to take in their books, depriving them of the opportunity to revise. Therefore, I have started giving them a “Have You Included” sheet.

It is basically an essay plan – what would I have put into the essay had I been asked to do so. But it allows students to self assess, referring to what they wrote, my Have You Included sheet and the marking criteria.

Compare the experiences of education portrayed in In Mrs Tilscher’s Class and Head of English by Carol Anne Duffy.

Have you included:

1. Overview

The experiences are very different:

i.      Mrs Tilscher is affectionate and warm;

ii.      Head of English is mocking and satirical.

The titles of the poems – the difference between naming the teacher and identifying her only by title – are hugely symbolic       

2. Relationship with the teacher

Mrs Tilscher

i.      Opportunities given “you could” do and go anywhere

ii.      Respect shown to the pupil: “Mrs Tilscher loved you” and sometimes “left a gold star”. Is maternal an appropriate word for Mrs Tilscher?

Head of English

i.      Gives instructions – imperative sentences – “Notice…” “Sit up straight”

ii.      Curbs and restricts, limits student responses “show your appreciation / by clapping. Not too loud”

iii.      Prefers the formulaic and traditional poets: “Season of mists” from Keats’ To Autumn is presumably her preferred form of poetry; Kipling likewise traditional – and also colonial, perhaps an offensive figure to those who have English as a “Second Language”

iv.      Short snipped fragments of sentences – gives impression of snappy, rude teacher barking commands

3. Environment

Mrs Tilscher is a sensual poem, students engaged through the senses:

i.      “tracing the route”

ii.      “coloured shapes”

iii.      “scent of a pencil”

iv.      Exciting: even books were “enthralling” and the class “glowed like a sweetshop”

v.      At points, synaesthetic:  “the air tasted of electricity”, “chanted the scenery” almost mystical or magical

Head of English is dramatic monologue, less description

i.      Silence is enforced “Whispering’s, as always, out of bounds”

ii.      Environment is controlled “Open a window”

4. Education beyond the curriculum

Mrs Tilscher shows a development and growing up process, perhaps rite of passage

i.      The tadpoles “changed” which parallels the students’ own maturity

ii.      Questions over “how you were born” and students “impatient to be grown”

Is this paralleled in the shortening of the stanza lengths?

iii.      Final humid image of the sky “split open into a thunderstorm” heavy with suggestion of the turmoil and potential of adolescence.

Head of English

i.      Extremely limited view of poetry and of education

ii.      Dismissive: “not all poems, / sadly, rhyme these days” – undermined by Duffy’s own use of rhyme within the poem itself?

iii.      Final line deeply offensive, challenge to the poet to “Convince us that there’s something we don’t know”

iv.      Reference to education of technique out of context – “Remember / the lesson on assonance” – no opportunity for students to play with or experience language, only derive a lesson

v.      “Take notes but don’t write reams. Just an essay / on the poet’s themes”

Two fabulous poems by Carol Anne Duffy – nothing unexpected but a clear opportunity to ask students to compare her attitude to education in the poems. A good start to the OCR Poetry Anthology on Duffy.

And a good reminder for us teachers that education is done with and by children, not to them!

In Mrs Tilscher’s class

In Mrs Tilscher’s class
You could travel up the Blue Nile
with your finger, tracing the route
while Mrs Tilscher chanted the scenery.
”Tana. Ethiopia. Khartoum. Aswan.”
That for an hour,
then a skittle of milk
and the chalky Pyramids rubbed into dust.
A window opened with a long pole.
The laugh of a bell swung by a running child.

This was better than home. Enthralling books.
The classroom glowed like a sweetshop.
Sugar paper. Coloured shapes. Brady and Hindley
faded, like the faint, uneasy smudge of a mistake.
Mrs Tilscher loved you. Some mornings, you found
she’d left a gold star by your name.
The scent of a pencil slowly, carefully, shaved.
A xylophone’s nonsense heard from another form.

Over the Easter term the inky tadpoles changed
from commas into exclamation marks. Three frogs
hopped in the playground, freed by a dunce
followed by a line of kids, jumping and croaking
away from the lunch queue. A rough boy
told you how you were born. You kicked him, but stared
at your parents, appalled, when you got back
home

That feverish July, the air tasted of electricity.
A tangible alarm made you always untidy, hot,
fractious under the heavy, sexy sky. You asked her
how you were born and Mrs Tilscher smiled
then turned away. Reports were handed out.
You ran through the gates, impatient to be grown
the sky split open into a thunderstorm.

Head of English

Today we have a poet in the class.
A real live poet with a published book.
Notice the inkstained fingers, girls. Perhaps
we’re going to witness verse hot from the press.
Who knows. Please show your appreciation
by clapping. Not too loud. Now

sit up straight and listen. Remember
the lesson on assonance, for not all poems,
sadly, rhyme these days. Still. Never mind.
Whispering’s, as always, out of bounds –
but do feel free to raise some questions.
After all, we’re paying forty pounds.

Those of you with English Second Language,
see me after break. We’re fortunate
to have this person in our midst.
Season of mists and so on and so forth.
I’ve written quite a bit of poetry myself,
am doing Kipling with the Lower Fourth,

Right. That’s enough from me. On with the Muse.
Open a window at the back. We don’t
Want winds of change about the place.
Take notes, but don’t write reams. Just an essay
on the poet’s themes. Fine. Off we go.
Convince us that there’s something we don’t know.