Posts Tagged ‘Tsotsi’

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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Hmmmm…

I wonder whether the fact that GCSE Prose From Other Cultures exam is on tomorrow accounts for the following spike in views of the blog in which I present my thoughts on Tsotsi…

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Looking at the search terms linking the Internet to my blog, I think quite possibly that is the case!

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Bless them!

And if anyone else wants to view it, the blog is here and the Tsotsi posts are here.

I wonder if any of those were my own students….

Good luck to you all tomorrow morning, but for now, for the sake of all that is sacred, get some sleep!

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These are the opening lines of the novel. From an OCR GCSE point of view, opening lines are always likely to be picked up as possible context questions. Now, for the sake of speed I have no intention of copying whole pages out, so please bear with the wobbly photographs!

Nor am I pretending to cover every point on this page: what follows is no more than a collection of (probably the most patent and obvious) observations as they occur to me.

The first thing that leaps out at me here is the length of the sentences: an entire page comprising just four sentences. The first sentence takes up ten whole lines; the last sentence takes up less than one line. What could a student say about that? That Fugard’s control of the sentence structures creates a rhythm and a direction, a momentum out of languor? If so, a student could go on and suggest that there is a parallel between the content of the lines which describe a listless afternoon coalescing into an evening of activity. As so often elsewhere in the book, Fugard’s language holds a rhythm that bears its own meaning.

Let us look at the opening sentence in more detail and we see that this is a sonorous writer, a lyrical writer straight away. His language uses alliteration and onomatopoeia in ways which would not be out if place in a poem and need to be analysed in the same way.

…to lift up a glass and hold it high over their heads for the dregs to drip into their open mouths or to yawn and stretch and then slump back into their chairs…

. We can practically hear the boys’ anticipation for the final drop of beer: the long vowel sounds of the ‘e’ in “dregs” delaying and contrasting with the short ‘i’ and plosive ‘p’ in “drip”; the long vowels of “yawn” and “stretch” drawing out the listless ennui which Fugard is describing.

From these opening lines, students should be aware that they will need to drag out of their subconscious those long forsaken key poetry terms!

Let’s look further in the same sentence as Fugard describes the neighbour’s voice.

…the old woman who was scolding, rattling her words like stones in a tin…

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This is a tiny detail, admittedly but critical to the passage: up until this point, Fugard could have been describing a middle class barbecue in suburban England – indeed many of my parents’ barbecues ended with people slumped in chairs, scratching themselves and finishing the dregs of their drinks – but this simile is our first insight into the poverty of the setting. Only the poorest, most disadvantaged sections of society would be reaching for similes such as “like stones in a tin” to describe a voice. What we are being treated to here is a beautiful, lyrical prose depicting abject poverty; the poetry of poverty.

But what a powerful simile! What a simple and potent way to describe both the harsh sounds of the voice and her implicit dissatisfaction and disapproval of the four boys. As this is being tested in the context of Prose From Other Cultures and understanding of context is being tested, this one simile opens up an opportunity to discuss the poverty of 1950s Sofiatown in Johannesberg, South Africa.

This one simile therefore clarifies that the boys’ languor is not suburban contentment but an ennui almost symptomatic of the diseased state in which the black community existed: robbed of pride, self-esteem, opportunity, education or employment by a white apartheid system the black youths have nothing gainful with which to employ themselves.

Let’s move on to character: no one is fleshed out here except for

…the young one, the youngest of the four, the one who said the least, who sat there and listened to the other three, the one they called Tsotsi…

Again, we are being handed a gift of an opportunity to gain context marks: the name Tsotsi is an urban slang from South Africa meaning “thug”. It is more than simply thug though: it refers to an imitation in 1950s South Africa of 1940s American gangsters in style of dress, violence and gang loyalty and rivalry. Within a single word, students are gifted opportunities to mention South Africa, Sofiatown, the violence that plagued its streets, the gangsters who ruled its slums, even the language of its streets which acquired its own name, tsotsitaal.

But this is not the end of the use we can put this quotation to. He is “the one they called Tsotsi”. It is therefore a label, a tag rather than a name. So? Might ask some students…. Well a name connects a character to a history, a family, an identity; a label is bereft of heritage. A name identifies; a label describes. As we later learn that Tsotsi has no memory of his past and the book revolves around his reclamation identity, this would be a critical issue to pick up.

But again, it’s too soon to leave this quotation: as he is “the one they called Tsotsi,” a reader may infer that the label Tsotsi is one forced upon him, one imposed by external factors rather than one chosen himself. On the surface, this seems inconsistent with what we learn later – that Tsotsi adopted the name himself after his mother was taken. But students could question who “they” may be: the other members of the gang; society; whites.

There are intriguing features to the presentation of Tsotsi here: he is clearly the gang’s leader as “The other three looked up at him and waited” but he is also “the youngest”; the gang is clearly capable of murder and violence from the remainder of the book, yet Tsotsi’s hands are “slim” and “delicate” and his fingers are “interlocking in the manner of prayer”. Whilst incongruous at this point, the novel reveals itself to be an allegory if redemption and becomes explicitly Christian in terms of that redemption and this opening image of prayer could be interpreted as an interesting early pre-figuration of that redemption.

Some things are very strange with the blogging world.

I started the Book Lover’s Sanctuary blog with no more drive or ambition than to record my thoughts, feelings, ideas about books that I read. Simple. Personal. Uncomplicated.

And then I read and blogged about Tsotsi by Athol Fugard here and here. In my opinion, a sublime and wonderful novel: lyrical and redemptive and real.

And the blog’s hit rate exploded. 20, 30, 40 hits per day on that review alone. So I did what I try to avoid doing: I though and I pondered and I wondered. And decided that it would be rude not to respond to this in some way. I am also teaching this book.

So my plan is to re-read it and to do a chapter-by-chapter textual analysis – a practical criticism exercise really. Maybe it will interest some; it might be useful to others; it may become tedious ad nauseam.

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Where does it fit within the English curriculum? Well, it’s currently a set text on the OCR GCSE English Literature specification which students read prior to a 45 minute terminal examination as Prose From Other Cultures.