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Where have I seen that actor before? What’s he been in? No, don’t tell me: it will come to me in a second.
That’s a common conversation in our house when watching a film. Usually the movie is paused and there’s a quick search on the internet to hunt out the actor’s name and their on-screen appearances.
We all know the A-list stars, but the B- and even C-list celebrities are the ones we struggle to remember with any clarity.
The trouble is, our memory tends to apply an automatic hierarchy of importance when recalling parts of a story.
We remember the big spectacle bits (the fights, deaths) and the key characters, but the tiny details are forgotten, or just not seen as important enough to register in the first place.
And this is a problem with studying texts at GCSE: the average learner can give you the greatest hits of the narrative, yet their mind goes blank when they have to think about the bits in between.
However, the best students are the ones able to make precise ideas based on a precise understanding of the text; and that means the whole text, including the one-scene characters or those without a line.
Invert the hierarchy of importance to focus on the smaller things, and you develop a student’s knowledge of a text for the better.
Moving the background characters to the foreground helps. When teaching Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, I find it useful to draw attention to the minor characters, as they help us understand more about the key figures.
Take Caroline and her husband. She delights initially in Scrooge’s death, when she discovers she does not have to pay him back.
It’s a small scene, but an important one in understanding Dickens’ story. Stave four focuses heavily on showing readers and Scrooge the different attitudes towards death.
We see a cold and mercenary attitude with Mrs Dilbur, then the opposite, with emotional grief from the Cratchits.
In contrast, Caroline shows us a third, pragmatic, perspective: a sense of relief and some guilt, because a death improves a situation.
Dickens presents us with a character with a similar attitude to Scrooge at the start of the story: death makes life better for some.
This challenges the notion that the rich are incredibly mean and the poor are inevitably deserving of support.
Dickens is much clever than that, and such tiny details help student understand the complexity of the ideas in the text.
Comparing a novel’s protagonist with other characters is always illuminating, and I find that getting students to see pairs of characters as part of the writer’s grand design can be very useful.
To do this, however, students will need to be familiar with the full cast of a story, including B-listers.
Take these two characters: Fezziwig and the Mayor. What is the effect created by Dickens by their inclusion in the story?
Both are lavish with their money, yet they are remarkably different in how they deal with it.
Fezziwig includes others, whereas the Mayor excludes. Dickens creates the idea that there are good and bad rich people.
It would be too easy simply to vilify the rich and that’s what Dickens cleverly avoids. Scrooge is more comical than cruel in his behaviour and presentation.
Often, in English, we rank characters in term of power status or other qualities. Putting two characters together can generates more fruitful discussions than this, as students really have to question why each one is in the story. What did Dickens have in mind when including Fred and Tiny Tim? What do they show us about Christian attitudes, natural goodness, and how our experiences shape us?
If we are honest, there are scenes we gloss over in every text when teaching. One particular example in A Christmas Carol is from the end of Stave three. The Spirit takes Scrooge to various places to see how others are experiencing Christmas in the present, and Dickens uses the following line:
The Spirit stood beside sick beds, and they were cheerful
It’s a tiny little bit of story. There are no specific, named characters. No detailed setting, or description, which we know Dickens loves as a rule. Instead, we get a snapshot of Scrooge and the ghost visiting ill people in hospital, who are still cheerful at Christmas. On the surface, this scene has little significance.
However, on closer inspection it echoes and reinforces Tiny Tim’s positivity whilst suffering. In every text there will be hundreds of little scenes like this that have their own merit and significance. Drawing more attention to them will help students solidify their understanding of the whole narrative.
In our department, we have used dual-coding to help students recall the story and significant moments of set texts. We reduce the narrative to symbols and pictures representing key aspects of the plot, which enables us to go through the pictures at the start of a lesson, checking what learners can and cannot recall.
Using this method, for example, we were able to identify that students struggled to recall the moment when the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge on a journey to see how others, especially the working class, experience Christmas.
Our dual-coding sheets of the texts are used repeatedly now for revision and testing. We have found that you can set numerous quick knowledge recall questions, but the information gained from this isn’t as effective as the use of pictures and quick identification of specific moments in the text.
They say God or the Devil is in the detail. I’d be bold enough to suggest that examination success in English literature lies there too; that the best students know obscure, oft-forgotten details, and use them to develop and explore meaningful interpretations of the text, linking them to more obvious characters, plot and events.
Chris Curtis is an English teacher, and author of the forthcoming book How to Teach English, which will be published in May 2019 (Crown House). Follow him on Twitter at @Xris32.
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