Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Prelim preparation

Anyone with the patience to read the comments on this blog will have noticed that I've been having an interesting chat with Liz O'Neill about the teaching of textual analysis. This evening I scurried back from a very civilised lunch in the Rogano in Glasgow to see my two private pupils for the last time before I vanish to foreign parts for a bit and they vanish into their Higher prelim exams. In both cases we were discussing how to construct an effective Critical Essay under exam conditions: ie choose a question that has some connection with one of your texts, work out exactly what it is asking you to consider, plan how to use your knowledge of the text in order to answer the question and then write about 700 words - all in 45 minutes. Then do it again for another question and a text of a different genre from the first.

All this - and it's hard work, at this level - had me thinking further about the effective sharing of ideas on literature. It seems to me that the most meaningful learning happens when the student begins to make the connections for herself (both my current students are female, so we'll stick with that pronoun). This takes time and patience, and sensitive probing and leading to help the insecure to a place of confidence. But what if a pupil arrives in your class with four years of less than satisfactory experience of literature? (Not the case with my current pair, but a possibility) What if they've never read any particularly complex stuff until they fetched up in a Higher class? Suddenly you've got to get them to a pitch of expertise that will enable them to pass a demanding exam in January - and you've got about five and a half months to do it in, with four weeks of holidays in two blocks to break up the rhythm.

I don't feel like solving the whole mystery right here and now - the nice lunch is still affecting the brain - but would suggest the following for starters:
If you can, make sure they read a novel over the summer holiday before S5 really starts. Something big, like "Sunset Song". Start analysing it with them in week one of the first term. If they can't hack it, they'll realise something about themselves. If they find themselves passionately reacting to the situation of the heroine in the middle of discussing her home life, they're hooked. Real literature is really involving - and there is so very much to say about it. Anyone who has failed to do the reading suddenly realises that they've dealt themselves out of the conversation, and either gets the finger out or gives up the ghost.

If you leave something as big as that till later in the term, you'll never do it. They'll get bogged down in Maths homework (it was always maths) and have no time to sit and read an extended text. You'll be stuck with short stories or jounalism for the Prose option - and that's not always ideal. My aim was always to have the novel plus, say, two of Doris Lessing's short stories - Lessing because she is such a superb crafter of language that every word and phrase tells and nothing is redundant. But what you absolutely must build in is the opportunity to talk about these texts - with you, with each other - so that they own them. It's not enough to set them questions to wrestle with in writing when they haven't the basic personal understanding that is only achieved through discussion and turning back to the text to back themselves up. And it is we the teachers who have to ask the hard questions, the whys and the hows, the whats and the what ifs, that will set their critical faculties working efficiently - and it is we who have to be the first to react with enthusiasm when they start to get it. You can do this in class time - because when you're with them it's a better use of your time that sitting doing your own thing while they write. I used to do it orally - with them all joining in, I hoped. Now I'd perhaps do it differently - a blog might involve everyone simultaneously.

But I'd really miss the chat.


  1. Chris, I've been meaning to comment on this because I found it really useful. I'm teaching an advanced higher English class for the first this year -and would love to dialogue with you about it. Perhaps there are other teachers out there who might join in.

    I like what you say about using class time to get discussion going. The dissertation side of the course is both stimulating and a bit daunting. Likewise the textual analysis. I share the class with another teacher -another dynamic again.

    If you get time -please consider blogging about this teaching stuff.
    You said something in a post on Ewan's blog about 'good teaching' underpinning this initiative
    into technology. Reading about good practice and being able to actually dialogue about it was one of the main reasons I got into this blogging lark. I'm very interested in the blogging stuff, and the way it can support my teaching -but I would also like to benefit from the experience of others.

  2. Liz, I shall go further on this - but I'll be more or less offline for the next few weeks, so it'll have to wait a bit! But thinking about what I had been doing and recording it in some way was one of the prime motives for my blogging in the first place. Come back here again!