Beautiful language, beautiful analysis?

If students are given more beautiful language to explore, would their analysis itself be more beautiful?

One of my biggest priorities this year is preparing my year 11 classes for their exams. Sure, this statement is unlikely to make it into any teacher recruitment literature, but it’s an unavoidable fact of teaching. And to this end, I’ve spent a lot of time since September going through past papers with my year 11 classes.

But recently, all this exam prep has left me with a serious case of past paper fatigue. (Stage Two, I think). My students are suffering too – they’re beginning to reach saturation point. It’s crucial that they know their way around the paper, and know what to expect when encountering new exam questions. But now that they seem comfortable with the timings, familiar with the questions, and confident with the technique, how can I continue to challenge them and broaden their horizons? They’re exam proficient and their performance on some of the questions seems to have plateaued. How can I challenge them further?

For anyone who doesn’t know the iGCSE English Language Reading exam, there’s one particular question which focusses on analysing the writer’s use of language. It’s a shorter question, where students focus their analysis on one paragraph in a short text. These paragraphs tend to be packed full of ‘techniques’ for student’s to discuss. You can virtually guarantee some personification rearing its figurative head, and an obvious simile will clunk you on the head like a rusty hammer. There’s plenty for the students to get their teeth into – but the paragraphs are rarely that interesting. This week I thought I’d try to raise the bar and use more interesting, complex texts into the classroom to help practise this question.

We started with this short passage, from F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, where the narrator, Nick Carraway, describes Gatsby’s smile.

“He smiled understandingly-much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favour. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”

Before introducing the text, I got students to define and discuss the word ‘eternal’. Was it positive? Negative? Is anything truly eternal? After giving a little context of The Great Gatsby, and explaining why I thought it was so brilliant, we read the passage through together. I then gave students some time to annotate the passage, discuss and share some of their observations, before having a go at an exam style response.

I was delighted with some of the observations my students made. On the one hand, we revelled in the effect of this smile, how special and confident it could make the recipient feel. We discussed how rare it must be for people to understand you just as far as you wanted – how generous Gatsby is with his judgements and his energy, how despite being able to take in the whole world, he still chooses to focus his irresistible attention on you. On the other hand, they felt a certain air of scepticism – doubting that such an effect could be possible, doubting the possibility of something eternal, observing the facade created by the phrase ‘seemed to face.’

I’m well aware that it’s difficult to judge the efficacy of such an approach completely accurately, particularly only after a few lessons. But the quality of my student’s writing certainly excelled much of their previous efforts. It was a genuine pleasure marking their work. Should I be surprised by this? Or, does the question I posed at the top of this blog post ring true?

Another offshoot of this lesson was some genuine curiosity from a few students. “Is this book in the library?” a couple of students asked. Another wanted to know whether it would be English Literature or English Language where she would most likely encounter ‘stuff like this’. Trust me, these sorts of questions are pretty rare for me especially after lunch on a Friday.

After reading and marking their work, I begun to think about some of the other texts I’d used in the past to help students practise analysing language. How often have I asked students to analyse texts which are too simple, texts which have left me cold, texts which I’ve barely been able to feign an interest in? At the same time, why was I surprised when their responses lacked insight or subtlety?

I suppose the question is, if you’re convinced that students should be exposed to more beautiful language, who decides whether something is beautiful or not? Isn’t it all subjective? My answer would be teachers – the subject specialists. For the students at my school, myself and the Department can select texts of true value, pitched at an appropriate and challenging level. Texts that we’re passionate about and excited about using. At KS4, we’ll need to ensure our students are fully prepared for their exams too, but lower down the school we can fill the curriculum with examples of beauty. We might make slightly different choices to the English Department a few miles away, but that’s ok. If we’re guided by the same principles, we’ll be excited and passionate about the beautiful texts we’re using, and maybe this will lead to more beautiful work from our students.

Here’s the worksheet I used during the Gatsby lesson and another my colleague created focussing on Scrooge.

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