Part 2: Teaching the GCSE English Language Evaluation question

Last time I introduced the mnemonic GRANDDAD as a way into evaluating the writer’s craft. We’ve been cracking on in class, producing practice paragraphs and full responses to Q4 (AQA) with mixed results. What’s become clear is that students who stick too closely with trying to engage with the statement get bogged down and resort to waffle, while those that use Genre, Reader response, Archetypes, Names, Description of character etc. generally say something more meaningful. It’s not always fully evaluative but it’s getting closer. A good job with the assessment coming tomorrow. How they’ll cope with the demands of all four questions in an hour is another matter.

Anyway, here’s the two model answers, on The Spy who Came in from the Cold, that I did to get the whole thing started:

Q4

Pupil A

The writers use of the setting of the checkpoint fits the conventions of the spy genre. In this genre we expect to see a mysterious protagonist who works on his own like Leamas does. The declarative ‘Leamas went to the window and waited’ is effective because spys always have to watch what others are doing and wait around for things to happen’

The name of ‘Control’ is also a good choice by Le Carre. It makes it seem as if he is in charge and gives him authority. It’s a strange and unusual name which fits the strange events in the spy genre.

The woman in the extract is presented as an archetypal femme fatale which means she is dangerous but attractive. This works because it makes the reader want to find out what happens to her and if she gets any of the men into trouble. The simile ‘blonde, tough as nails’ works well because ‘blondes’ are meant to be attractive to men. Also ‘tough’ suggests shes dangerous once she get her ‘nails’ into you.

The description of the wall istelf adds to the sense of excitement for the reader. The setting is described as ‘the Wall, a dirty, ugly thing…like the backdrop for a concentration camp’ which makes it seem as if there is going to be deaths happening. This is because the noun ‘concentration camps’ were used by Hitler to kill people.

And a sophisticated one to aspire to:

Pupil B

A real strength in Le Carre’s writing is that he is able to make his characters mysterious, which reflects the secretive nature of the spy genre.  The characterisation of ‘Control’ is particularly effective as his enigmatic name has connotations of power and authority.  Alternatively, we could interpret his name as a place of command – like a control centre – but importantly far removed from the real action out on the front line.  This is reinforced by the sarcastic comment about Control ‘implying that he had to go off and risk his life somewhere else’ with the verb ‘implying’ taken to indicate that he is actually doing the opposite and retreating to his safe desk job.

Less successful, in my opinion, is the writer’s portrayal of the female character, Elvira.  She is described as a ‘forty-year-old blonde, tough as nails’, which seems quite an obvious stereotypical image, as ‘blondes’ are an obvious choice as an archetypal femme fatale.  The simile ‘tough as nails’ appears somewhat clichéd to the modern reader, although this may still have been an interesting comparison back in the 1960s.  ‘Nails’ does have a suggestion of holding something together, so does perhaps work as an indication of how the relationship seems a bit forced.  At least as a more mature ‘forty-year old’ she isn’t an obvious male fantasy figure.

On first impression, the character description of Karl, using the simile ‘like a rabbit in the headlights of a car’ also seems clichéd. It does however, fit nicely with the image of Karl being startled by the unexpected spotlights.  So it isn’t being used to depict fear in general, but the actual act of being dazzled by light emerging from nowhere. The juxtaposition of ‘rabbit’ and ‘car’ is effective as this scenario usually ends in death, which is precisely the fate that Karl meets.  ‘Rabbits’ are also seen as animals possessing low intelligence with matches with Karl’s characterisation.  Crucially they are famed for their reproductive urges (“breeding like rabbits”), which amplifies the sense that Karl’s sexual feelings for the ‘blonde’ have led to his downfall.

The shooting scene is very effectively portrayed.  The alliteration of ‘cleary…clatter’ emphasises the harsh sound of the bike (and with it Karl) hitting the tarmac, while the personification of the bullets ‘the first shot seemed to thrust Karl forward, the second to pull him back’ has a strong effect on the reader as the verbs ‘thrust’ and ‘pull’ provoke the feeling that Karl is like a puppet on a string, which tallies neatly with his characterisation as a naïve and manipulated individual.

You’ll notice that in this one I’ve started to respectfully challenge elements of the writing, qualifying my criticisms wherever possible. This is clearly difficult for most pupils – especially the non-readers of which I have plenty. But I think teaching pupils about both definitions of cliche: the worn out, hackneyed phrase and the predictable plot point will generate thoughtful contributions in the long run (a classic cliche of my own).

Here’s some of the example bits of analysis and full responses that pupils have produced so far. They’re a real mix of ability (predicted – by the computer, not me – to be Grade 4-7):

 

Hope you find these useful. Next time I’ll include the efforts of some really high ability pupils from a colleague’s group looking at a different text and will break down some of the parts of GRANDDAD in more detail.

Thanks for now,

Mark

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Teaching the Evaluation Question for GCSE English Language

I’ve been thinking about and reading about evaluation a lot recently. When the new GCSE English Language contents were unveiled most English teachers wobbled a bit over the structure question. I knew from the start though that it was the evaluation question that was going to be the real toughy.

Lots have blogs have been written about why asking fifteen or sixteen-year-old pupils to appraise the work of some of our finest writers is a daft idea. I agree, but we’re stuck with it so I quickly switched to pondering the best way to approach this beast of a question.

There have been a couple of really useful and very sensible blogs by @JamesTheo and @NSMWells looking at the theory behind evaluation and the skills required to make a proper job of it. I totally agree with the idea that sentence starters alone won’t do the job and support the idea that ultimately we need to expose students to a rich diet of high quality texts, bringing alive the context to give them the tools to decode and value the quality of a piece of writing.

This is what our KS3 redesign (a euphemism for binning virtually all of the previous schemes) sets out to do. Yet I inherited a class of Year 10 reluctant readers who were in no more of a position to judge the quality of Doris Lessing’s oeuvre than I am qualified to espouse on the relative musicological merits of Stockhausen and Shostakovitch. And they have an end-of-unit assessment on the topic next week.

So what was (and still is to some extent) needed was a crash course in literary theory. The writer’s craft. Elements of fiction. The art of fiction. The stuff that writers do. Whatever you want to call it – and let’s be honest, this is stuff that was largely previously saved for A level – they need to get their heads around the ingredients used by the best writers of fiction. And Daphne De Maurier.

Here’s my take. A practical approach – and very much an evolving approach that will require equal parts trial and error – on how to teach the evaluation question at GCSE language. I do AQA so we are talking Q4 here (why is it always Q4 that is designed to shaft everyone, by the way?) but lots of this will be applicable to other exam boards:

  1. The statements/questions/bullet points are not your friend. Nor the pupils’. Nick Wells is absolutely right about the misleading nature of the statements and prompts. The most successful responses I’ve had from pupils so far virtually ignore the statement and only make a cursory mention of whether they agree. The wisest approach, I believe, it to take them as pure starting points and then get down to the nitty gritty of evaluation with hefty chunks of analysis thrown in (another point that Nick nails: AQA don’t really want just evaluation; they want a hybrid of both, or mainly analysis with the odd evaluative nod)
  2. Unless you’re Frank Kermode or a very bright pupil, you’d better agree with the statement because a) the extract will usually be from a famous, highly-respected writer b) it will probably be a high-quality critically acclaimed work c) which means it will be well-written and d) your examiner will probably love it, or at least grudgingly admire parts of it, so won’t take kindly to some bumfluff-faced upstart slagging it off. Having said that, there are some ways of tentatively criticising, which I’ll return to next time.
  3. It’s an unseen extract, very likely from the opening, so you have to be savvy about what beginnings usually contain and share in common. There’s little point, I would argue, in spending lots of time talking about climax and denouement with this in mind.

Taking all this into account, I’ve decided to teach evaluation by focusing on the following elements of fiction:

  • Genre – specifically the writer’s (effective naturally) use of generic conventions. We’ve looked at the obvious stuff that might come up but also introduced bildungsroman etc. to liven things up a tad
  • Reader response – this runs throughout all the other elements – how does the writer provoke a response from a reader and is this done well?
  • Atmosphere – Is the writer successful in creating a particular mood?
  • Names – Bearing mind David Lodge’s comment that ‘in a novel names are never neutral. They always signify something, even if it is only ordinariness…the naming of characters is always an important part of creating them.’ Are they well-chosen? Do they fit (or deliberately not fit for ironic effect)?
  • Dialogue – is it realistic or clunky? How does it add to our understanding and successfully shape characterisation?
  • Description of character – Does the physical description do a good job at giving us an insight into the ‘true’ character?
  • Archetypes – does the writer use stock characters effectively to assist the reader or do they subvert archetypes to challenge our expectations? Not just obvious archetypes like the antagonist or femme fatale but more obscure ones such as the redshirt (who is conveniently killed off during the opening of a story)
  • Description of location – How does the description of place add to the reader’s appreciation of the atmosphere?

How have we got on so far? It’s been hard. As hard as I imagined it would be. But they are starting to get it. Next time I’ll share some pupils responses and some model answers. Perhaps you can come up with some fresher, more sprightly ideas. For now I’m sticking with GRANDDAD.

Thanks for reading,

Mark

 

 

 

 

 

The Sense of an Ending

The end of an era is upon us. The next week or so will signal the demise of Of Mice and Men. The old stalwart has become second nature to a generation of secondary English teachers, who, by now, can regurgitate not just lengthy quotations but also page numbers, obscure historical facts about the suitably vague time period ‘1930s America’, and quite possibly, at a push, Curley’s wife’s bra size.

That’s not strictly true of course. Not the bit about Curley’s wife but the part about the end of Steinbeck’s classic novella. It’s a GCSE goner but will no doubt live on, in a two-fingered gesture to Gove, a KS3 staple, rescued from the obscurity of the back of the dusty departmental book cupboard.

OMM

Yet the sense of an ending is nonetheless tangible. I’ve certainly been looking for ways to squeeze every last drop out of the ‘green pool’ before Lennie starts polluting it with his equine/ursine/ovine drool.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve approached OMM or, if you prefer OMAM, with renewed vigour: a condemned prisoner planning his Death Row valedictory meal. So we’ve approached context with greater sophistication, using quotes from Howard Zinn’s scintillating A People’s History of the United States and applying the poetry of the oppressed, courtesy of Langston Hughes’s seminal ‘A Dream Deferred’. The best results of all came from analysis, appropriately enough, of the ending itself, alongside the ‘other’ text from our modern texts exam (DNA by Dennis Kelly).

This week, I’ve introduced my Year 11 class to the concept of aporia. David Lodge, in his wonderfully erudite yet accessible book The Art of Fiction features a chapter on this literary device. Lodge defines aporia as a Greek word meaning:

‘”a pathless path”, a track that gives out. In classical rhetoric it denotes real or pretended doubt about an issue, uncertainty as to how to proceed in a discourse.’

He then goes on to summarise how aporia (‘often combined with another figure of rhetoric, “aposiopesis”, the incomplete sentence or unfinished utterance, usually indicated by a trail of dots…) is used by authors to act as a narrative device for the following reasons:

  1. To arouse curiosity in their audience (My translation: Ooh, I wonder what might’ve happened next?)
  2. To emphasise the extraordinary nature of the story they are telling (Hey, for once it looks like this isn’t going to be made into a sequel)
  3. As a way of reflecting the insoluble problems of adequately representing life in art (Life’s not got nice neat endings, so why should a story)
  4. The writer is unsure how to dispose of his fictional characters (How the bloody hell am I going to end this one without ruining the whole bloody thing?)

Discussions about aporia rather than the imprecise word ‘endings’ led on to the following valuable digressions:

  • Difference between aporia and a cliffhanger
  • Why modern fiction often prefers messy endings compared to the 19th Century novel (although I’d argue that Jane Austen started to satirise this artificial neatness)
  • Can we identify (i.e. evaluate) which of Lodge’s four motivations for using aporia fits with the authors we were looking at
  • Structural issues – where does aporia fit in with Todorov’s notion of the return to equilibrium etc.

I then  asked pupils to look at the last page of OMM and DNA and write an analytical paragraph explaining why the texts end as they do, with the charmless Carlson, rather than sensitive Slim’s offer of a drink; and why the aimless stage directions of DNA: ‘No answer. They sit in silence.’

Here’s what some of them came up with:

omm molly

OMM laura

And this clever joker (note the structural use of aposiopesis):

OMM alex

Out with a bang, then (sorry Lennie). OMM might be a moribund text but, for me, aporia lives to fight another…