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Literature Study Post-16 II

Activities with student teachers

Subject knowledge and subject content

In terms of subject knowledge I've found a good starting point is asking the student teachers to complete a very simple self-audit and use this as a starting point for some shared reading. Simply, I've taken the current set book lists from across the specifications (all downloadable) and sent student teachers off to tick from the list those they are comfortable and familiar with. Comparing across the group (in my case 20-25 student teachers) reveals major 'gaps' and texts which are familiar to many or all. Within the lists there are texts that are seldom seen in school. Equally, there are popular choices that may be relatively unknown (often newer texts like Snow Falling on Cedars or Vernon God Little).

Bearing these factors in mind, the second stage of this subject knowledge audit is to ask student teachers (I might do the choosing) to choose a text from the list of those taught but relatively unknown and read and prepare a short review/presentation (with accompanying handout) identifying key issues, teaching points, etc. These short presentations have been shared as short slots at the end of taught sessions (in parallel with similar work going on around a Key Stage 3 fiction audit). I've found that this is a useful – though very obvious – way to develop subject knowledge, and – additionally – has proved to be enjoyable. It's refreshing, as a group of English teachers, to talk about books. Having a short weekly slot for feedback on an A level book helps to keep the issue bubbling away throughout the year. David Stevens, a colleague at Durham university, has said to me that he does a similar thing, but with student teachers researching and feeding back on resources available to post-16 students, including websites, CD Roms, DVDs, etc.

Something I've done with both GCSE and A level specifications in order to try and quickly get a sense of subject content, and the different options available is to break the student teachers into smaller groups and allocate each group a particular specification and a prompt sheet for a presentation. The prompt sheet simply asks the group to quickly research their given syllabus and prepare a handout and short presentation to the rest of the group, outlining particular features – e.g. coursework options, exam titles, interesting text options, etc. The feedback session need not be lengthy, but it is a way to open up a broader discussion about the options available at A level, and the potential of the different courses for different kinds of school students.

Another obvious activity, but nonetheless useful for that, is to engage with student teachers in some reflection on their own experience as A level students. This can form a useful starting point to university sessions on A level teaching, and can be as simple as small group discussions reflecting on memories of texts studied, teaching approaches taken, particular teachers, etc. Information and ideas generated from these discussions can reverberate through sessions on A level teaching approaches, considerations of A level cohort, and issues to do with A level assessment.

This kind of reflection can result in more formal written work. For example, in the past, as part of some work inspired by NATE's ITE Committee, I asked my group to consider their experience as a learner of English across school and university, articulating what they perceived to be differences in approach to English pre-, during and post-A level. This revealed some quite interesting things about undergraduate English teaching (and it is perhaps worth raising as an issue how far A level literature should be a preparation for degree study, given that the vast majority of those taking it won't go on to higher education in that particular subject), but also provided quite a complex picture of A level experience. Some strong memories were shared of 'inspirational' experiences, though this was not often articulated in terms of particularly innovative or creative teaching and learning strategies, but more in terms of charismatic teachers, or in terms of relationships formed. It might be difficult to think about how one engenders charisma, but it is certainly worth pursuing discussions about how you foster the particular types of effective relationships at A level, where, I suppose, the ideal is to allow A level students to feel, in a sense, on a par with their teachers, though still at some professional distance. Of course, the relationships are not formed in isolation to the teaching and learning strategies, and indeed when considering teaching and learning approaches I would place an emphasis here on how fostering autonomous learners at least allows, if not actually creates, such relationships.

Within a broader subject knowledge audit that all my group complete at the beginning of the year, I ask the student teachers to tell me something of the literary theory they have encountered (and are comfortable with) through their previous degree work. Later in the course as we approach A level teaching I am keen to encourage student teachers to consider in what ways their knowledge of literary theory can inform their own teaching.

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