‘Roberts knew, before he had been in the exam board meeting fifteen minutes, that they meant to murder his soul.’
One of the problems with teaching a new (rushed through) specification is the lack of decent exam board example responses and sample assessment material. Indeed AQA, who I’ve otherwise been very happy with, have always been particularly poor, in my humble opinion, at providing useful benchmarks to share with staff and students. In their desperation to assure anxious English faculties that pupils will be able to cope with the demands of the new specs, all exam boards tend to produce “top level” examples that turn out to be anything but in the long run. I know this sounds very conspiratorial but I’ve had plenty of experience of seeing top marks given to error-riddled creative writing controlled assessments or high marks given to analytical essays that don’t, for example, actually analyse the writer’s use of language. When it comes round to the moderation/examination things revert to normality and the examiners/moderators only reward high marks to stuff that actually deserves it.
So, as per normal, I was a bit of a pain in the backside at a recent AQA session. This time, however, I wasn’t the only one. Sensible types who appeared usually less outspoken than me were going crazy about some of the examples that were being awarded top band marks for the English language evaluation. The issue, it seemed, was that these answers didn’t actually evaluate. Analyse yes, and often very well. But evaluate? Not really.
Having taught this section of the paper for the last seven weeks or so, and having just standardised a few papers with my team, I decided, as usual to bin the exam board exemplars and rely on our collective interpretation of the mark scheme along with instinct/knowledge/experience/prejudices/pet hates/considerations of pupil motivation and anything else objective and subjective that goes into the awarding of a mark for an English response. It was a thoroughly enjoyable session (if you like that kind of thing – arguing whether something is relevant or judicious for example -and if not why are you an English teacher?) that greatly reassured us about our approach to teaching the evaluation element and also making very clear how far we’ve still to go before pupils nail it.
I was really interested to see how pupils did on Q3 (structure) but most intrigued to see how they handled Q4 (evaluation), which shall, from this point on, be known as “The Beast”.
Q3 was generally a pleasant surprise. Our approach is based on the structural features and strategies I’ve previously blogged about here and the pupils that have embraced Todorov and spatial shifts in particular did really well. I’ll return to this, looking at some examples, in another blog. But let’s focus on The Beast for now:
This response was typical of many Q4 efforts. Major timing issues led to a decent start being soon thwarted by the end of test scramble. There is only one quote and the pupil tends to analyse rather than evaluate. The focus on ‘they’ could have been interesting with more development but ultimately appears somewhat irrelevant in this response. We gave it a mark of 7 (Band 2) out of 20.
This pupil had scored full marks on Q1, Q2 and Q3 (which was particularly brilliant). Again though, timing problems led to a loss of marks for Q4 and had us pondering the strategy of working backwards through the paper like we did on the old spec. We still haven’t decided; it may be that we trial this approach at the next mock.
Whilst I would definitely quibble with the notion of Hale’s name having few connotations, the evaluation of Kolly Kibber is far more successful. The use of the archetype is off kilter, but there wasn’t anything in the extract itself to suggest his more advanced age. The pupil’s weighing up of the cliche is really astute and deeply perceptive when they evaluate the possible reasons for adopting a hackneyed expression. We’ve done a lot of work on cliches and it’s starting to pay off. This is one area where pupils can tentatively critique established writers, especially if they consider the possibility of it being a deliberate authorial ploy. Two points of caution. 1.This pupil goes too far in the final (rushed) statement. 2. Pupils have be to taught that idioms and metaphors that appear stale to a modern reader may actually have been inventive and fresh at the time of writing.
Anyway, due to the brevity of the response, we gave this 13 marks but were very impressed by the potential shown.
While this one also appears rushed in places it does manage to deal with more aspects of the text than the previous effort. The response clearly adopts elements of the GRANDDAD mnemonic which I’ve previously introduced. I will gradually wean this pupil off the ‘writing in the margin checklist’ approach but for now I’m delighted with the quality of the work produced under exam conditions (this was the first time any one them had seen the extract – one pupil in the year group said that he’d already read Brighton Rock). The evaluation tends to be implied rather than following the formulaic ‘this is effective because…’. However, a target will be to use the language of evaluation more overtly. There are some nice touches – linking the idea of reader involvement to the mystery/thriller genre for example, and noting the contrast with Hale’s demeanour and the Brighton crowds.
We also gave this one a mark of 13. The pupil was targeted a Grade 6 so I’m thrilled with this as a starting point.
- Timing is going to be key
- The bullet points aren’t much help (other than as a starting point)
- A mixture of evaluation and supporting analysis works best
- GRANDDAD seems to help pupils of all abilities deal with unseen texts
- You can criticise if you’re careful, well-read and respectful
- This question is hard but not impossible – a crash course in the classics and the elements of the writer’s craft is the only short-term solution for non-readers
Thanks for reading,