Posts Tagged ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’

On practical criticism

August 10, 2017

Some recent posts about poetry by a fellow-blogger have reminded how much I miss teaching practical criticism. Back in the old days, before the exam boards started messing about with A level English Literature, at the end of the two-year course one of the papers students had to sit was an unseen paper in which they were faced by two texts, one poetry and the other either prose or drama; an analytical essay on each was required; usually there were some prompts in the questions and a few contextual details to get students started. And that was it… obviously too difficult by the time we reached the 1990s and so the tinkering began.

Preparing students for such a paper was quite a challenge, but an enjoyable one. There were, of course, books of carefully selected extracts (often dull as ditchwater) designed to support the teacher in imparting the necessary training, skills and practice. Or, you could devise your own course, as many teachers I knew did. This was the tricky bit but once you had amassed sufficient and varied selections of prose, poetry and drama, you were good to go.

Two years was a decent length of time; no messing about at the end of the lower sixth with revision, study leave and AS exams breaking up the flow and continuity. Over time, I gradually developed what I came to call the ‘staircase‘ approach: bottom step: what is the writer saying? next step: how is s/he saying it? third step: how effective is s/he in saying it? Progressive in level of difficulty therefore, but ensuring that my students considered techniques, and were led to some kind of personal response.

Prose was relatively straightforward, I thought: a selection from novels beginning with Defoe – for me the first novelist – and gradually working towards the twentieth century, taking in both English and American authors. Using these it was possible to show students how the novel had developed, both in terms of subject-matter and style; they could see how the language, sentence length, syntax as well as use and presentation of dialogue had changed over time, and as the course worked towards its end, were usually able to identify roughly when a text had been written, after several careful reads. They became adept at reading between the lines, too: speculating thoughtfully, and making judgements which they could justify and evidence, even though their surmises might not have always been spot-on. Confidence built over time, and it was possible to lead them to express and clarify their opinions and reactions too.

Work on extracts from plays could follow a similar pattern: one could compare the use of verse and prose, and how dramatists sought increasing control over interpretation of their work through ever more complex stage directions.

Poetry was a lot more demanding and also a lot more fun, with so many different forms and styles, never mind subjects, and that was before you got on to the huge range of poetic techniques. Because – I oversimplify, obviously – poems tended to be shorter and self-contained, you were analysing an entire work. There was the (often) added difficulty of working out what on earth a poet was actually going on about. Over two years, it was possible to get students to slow down, and read multiple times and carefully before beginning to commit their thoughts to paper. And again, there was time and space for them to develop and articulate a thoughtful personal response. They could learn how to react logically and sensibly to the feeling of being completely flummoxed. Although there was the famous year when the examiners chose a poem about a ringed plover, and if students hadn’t managed to divine that it was actually a bird, then they got themselves into some pretty awful scrapes…

There’s a lot of really exciting and good poetry and prose to play with, obviously, in four centuries of literature; there’s also stuff that is deadly dull, and you had to introduce students to that, too, and to coping with it; increasingly examiners tended to play safe and avoid anything too difficult or out of the way, as well as anything too political or religious; I can see why, in the end, they decided to ditch the openness of the paper and go for something more circumscribed, which they thought would be more manageable for students and teachers… and took a lot of the pleasure away.

I really loved teaching this course. There were golden moments: a self-written course is quite personal in a way, and to find students occasionally enthusing about a text that I really liked was very heartening and satisfying. One year, one of the texts was not unseen to quite a few of my students, as the examiners chose a short story which I had studied with them previously at GCSE. And I eventually came round to using William McGonagall’s The Tay Bridge Disaster as the final poem in the course. Watching the students’ faces as they tried – often disbelievingly – to parse it as a work of poetry and literature, was wonderful, and my joy was complete when one year, after letting them wrestle in silence with it for ten minutes or more, a student put up his hand and said, rather tentatively, ‘Sir, this is crap, isn’t it?’ Then, of course, the ice well-broken, we began to examine exactly why it was crap…

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My ABC of Reading: U is for Unseen

December 19, 2016

One of the things I remember from my days of studying at school and university is the unseen, a word capable of striking terror into one’s brain: to be faced with a passage of text – prose, poetry or drama, that one had never previously met, and being expected to analyse it and write intelligently about it, against the clock. And, of course, the unseen was in Latin or French, if that was the subject of the examination.

When examiners are pushed into all sorts of tricky corners by clueless government ministers who think that teachers are cheating again, surely what they need is recourse to the good, old-fashioned unseen paper. Only once in my long teaching career was an unseen not an unseen, when I opened the A level paper my students were taking and saw a short story I’d studied with some of them in the fifth form, and thought – I wonder how many of you will remember this? And that previous encounter would have been of no advantage to them anyway, for the unseen paper tests your skills and understanding, and your ability to apply these, as well as your ability to write intelligently; no cheating possible here. If you’ve been a committed and reasonably assiduous student over two years, you can cope with anything you’ll meet.

Yet you could practise for this paper, and we did. A weekly class where I would put an unseen text in front of the class to see what they would make of it; all you could do by way of training really was to feed them prompts, encouragement and feedback, and supply them with a useful list of terminology and definitions. Apart from that, if you covered a wide enough spectrum of literature over time, from sixteenth to twentieth century, intelligent students would build up the beginnings of a jigsaw of literature and its history, with enough knowledge to enable them to conjecture intelligently and explore an unfamiliar text with a sensible approach.

And, of course, I got to choose the unseen texts, and could feed them all kinds of extracts from my favourite novels, or my favourite poems; an advantage of this was that I would end up eventually explaining and clarifying what it was that I specifically liked about these texts, whether language or metaphor or rhyme or build-up of tension or whatever, and the class learned something of how to explore and explain their reactions to texts, as well.

Over time, I came to save one particular poem for the last class I took with a group. It was William McGonagall’s The Tay Bridge Disaster. As usual, we’d read the text aloud – very important for hearing all sorts of things that one should pay attention to – and then they were invited to begin their analysis. Often, they would wrench themselves into trying to make all kinds of appreciative comments, while I bit my lower lip. I loved the student, whose name I sadly cannot remember, who, one year, put up their hand and said, tentatively, “Sir, this is crap, isn’t it?” And that was an object lesson for everyone.

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