Literature Revision and the Art of Giving Spoilers

As a linguistics graduate, I’ve had to work hard trying to catch up with the wealth of literature subject knowledge most of my colleagues possess. Luckily for me, when I ask about an interpretation of a poem, or a movement in English Literature, they are happy to tell me what they think. Sometimes they share factual, historical information, sometimes an interpretation, sometimes they other a reading recommendation. All are pretty helpful.

If they wanted to be less helpful, they’d probably respond to my earnest pleas for information with simply another question. This might be what quirky teacher refers to as an ‘endlessly frustrating question’: one which is posed by a teacher when they could simply provide the answer in a more explicit way. Now if I put myself in the shoes of my students, wading their way through the murky ocean of literature texts and interpretations, it’s no wonder they sometimes feel a little lost at sea. A more didactic approach and a few spoilers could provide the life raft they need.

Andy Tharby’s blog What happens when we teach interpretations of literature as facts? provides some excellent reflections on how such a didactic approach need not restrict students. Especially in the final days and lessons before their exams, students need some explicit guidance on the texts they are studying.

Here are a few ways I’ve been trying to provide more spoilers this year.

1. Provide students with the literary interpretations they need to write an essay

Students are likely to be asked to explore the presentation of a character or a theme (or perhaps a combination of the two). When revising, I’ve been providing students with four key ideas to begin their revision. These ideas translate into the four main interpretations students might explore in an essay.

Take the example here for the role of Mary Morstan in the Sign of the Four:

Mary_Morstan_Essay_PlanThe document helps transform the potentially daunting task of ‘revision’ into something much more concrete and achievable. Note the inclusion of key page numbers too, so students are not faced with the intimidating, time-consuming task of finding quotations from the whole text. Students still need to select quotations and offer some analysis of Doyle’s intentions – so there’s plenty of thinking still to be done. Once complete, this style of document works as an essay plan, bolstered by class discussion.

For some students, it is of course possible to encourage them to find another interpretation. And for others I may provide the quotations themselves rather than get them to reread several pages of a novel independently.

2. Provide students with key quotations

Another way to facilitate good quality revision is to provide students with lists of key quotations. Whilst this can be time-consuming for a teacher to put together, just imagine the time it would take a year 11 student, without the same depth of knowledge and subject expertise.

Here’s an example I’ve used for Blood Brothers (link here)

Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 17.12.05

Students know this isn’t necessarily an exhaustive list, but it allows them to focus on analysing language and exploring characterisation, rather than scrambling through texts to find quotations. It also helps us discuss ‘high utility’ quotations, those that are worth remembering because they help discussion of a number of themes or characters.

I’ve also set tasks which give students a shorter list of quotations alongside some key literary interpretations (like the example below). Here, students would be asked to select and analyse the most important quotations from the list which support each interpretation.

Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 17.17.38

3. Provide students with the complex vocabulary needed to discuss literary texts

I’ve written before about how vocabulary knowledge can often be a barrier to understanding poetry. I’ve also been trying to apply this idea to the longer plays and novels we study at KS4.

Take Romeo and Juliet. There are words like omenportentous, and celestial which I have taught explicitly to help students think about the text as a whole. There are also words I’ve taught explicitly to help them revise characters. One example of this was our discussion of Romeo and Friar Lawrence in act 2 scene 3. In the past, I may well have asked students to read the scene and try to interpret how the characters were presented. This year, the lesson started with these statements:

Romeo is presented as impulsive, impetuous and arguably naive.

Friar Lawrence is presented as more thoughtful and wise, counselling Romeo to love more moderately.

Words like ‘moderation’ and ‘impulsive’ provide students with a peg to hang their ideas on, as well as helping them think more carefully about the characters. These words can also be incorporated into the essay plans we use as a class.

I should also say that before reading each scene I told students exactly what was going to happen. The ultimate spoiler perhaps, but less time trying to work out the plot means more time thinking about characters, themes and language.

4. Give students essay plans for them to write

Once again, this strategy is aimed at getting my students to think about the nuts and bolts of English Literature essays – embedding quotations, exploring the writer’s language, connecting and contrasting different ideas about themes or characters. Providing students with an essay plan, typically the main point I’d like them to argue and the quotations I’d like them to use, frees the mind to focus on these nuts and bolts.

This is an example of such a task I used in a lesson recently, for part of a comparative poetry essay:

Write two paragraphs comparing the writer’s attitudes to conflict in ‘Exposure’ and Bayonet Charge.

Paragraph One:

Key Point:  The soldiers in Owen’s poem are suffering passively – contributing to a feeling of futility.

Evidence:

  • Repetition of the phrase ‘but nothing happens’ (try to comment on the potential irony here)
  • The phrase ‘gunnery rumbles… dull rumour’ (try to explore the sense of ever-present threat)

Paragraph Two:

Key Point: Unlike Owen’s poem, Hughes presents the soldiers suffering as active, violent and brutal.

Evidence (remember to make two/three links back to Exposure)

  • ‘raw in raw seemed hot khaki’ (try to explore multiple interpretations of ‘raw)
  • ‘bullets smacking the belly out of the air’ (try to explore harsh plosive sounds)

5. Give lectures

I have to admit, this is a fairly new strategy. For the past two weeks, different English teachers have given short, 20 minute lectures on comparing poems from the anthology after school on a Thursday. The lectures are deliberately complex and challenging, and are open to all year 11s. So far, around sixty students have attended each lecture. They listen attentively, take notes diligently, and many have gone home to incorporate the notes into their own practice essays. I’ve had lots of positive feedback from students who’ve attended.

I know that some readers of this blog might find some of the ideas a little dull or perhaps limiting my students’ creativity. Personally, I haven’t seen any evidence of this.

As for giving spoilers, don’t think of it as giving away the ending to an exotic foreign movie, think of it as  providing subtitles, so the film can be fully appreciated by anyone watching.

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4 thoughts on “Literature Revision and the Art of Giving Spoilers

  1. I agree. I’ve been giving lectures in the run-up to the exams (with structured resources and extracts of annotated texts). With the knowledge embedded they’re giving me more interpretations than if I asked them to find everything out themselves. I really like the structured essay plan idea- I’ll try that next week.

  2. Pingback: Educational Reader’s Digest | Friday 12th May – Friday 19th May – Douglas Wise

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