Activities with student teachers
Teaching and learning approaches
As an A level teacher, I was myself often far too guilty of forgetting the kinds of active reading approaches that constitute good practice around texts. Aware of this, and aware that student teachers will probably see lessons where this is the case, I always think it is good to start by reassessing active reading approaches and seeing how they can be used with A level texts. At the very simplest level I find it useful to revisit tried and trusted DARTs activities, and asking student teachers to devise activities around poems or the openings of novels using these techniques. Similarly, I think it important to encourage the use of drama in the A level classroom both in the study of drama itself, and in developing responses to fiction and poetry. With my student teachers I will look at typical A level texts a Blake poem, perhaps and create a series of tableaux, for example, and consider how this helps to develop understanding of the text. There can be some issues taking these activities into the classroom A level classes thinking this is not 'real work' in comparison to the note taking sessions they undertake in other subjects. For this reason I think my student teachers need the chance to reassess these sorts of approaches themselves and reconsider their use at A level. What's for sure is that if as a teacher you don't build these approaches into A level teaching early in a course, it becomes increasingly difficult as a different teaching and learning discourse roots itself in the classroom.
At the same time, I encourage student teachers to think about how lesson/learning objectives can be used effectively in A level teaching. As a Head of English, and as a London Borough consultant I saw many, many A level English lessons taught by teachers who would methodically make learning objectives explicit at the beginning of Key Stage 3 and 4 lessons, but whose post-16 lessons never looked at learning in this way. I'm not necessarily advocating writing objectives on the board at the start of lessons and ticking them off at the end, but if making learning intentions explicit is a good strategy then it should hold for 17 year-olds as well as 14 year-olds. Being explicit about how lesson activities relate to the specifications and assessment objectives seems to me to be something worth considering. It's about relating individual lessons into the 'bigger picture' of the study of a text or group of related texts and simultaneously about linking day to day work with the overarching knowledge and skills in terms of developing as a critical reader and as a student able to confidently negotiate the assessment hurdles.
Developing students' autonomy is something to think about. Clearly adopting a seminar approach and asking A level students to go off and read the next chapter, or research an aspect of the text and report back is a useful strategy, but I would encourage student teachers to think about how to do this in a structured way, offering support, guidance and guidelines for presentation, to scaffold and support the moves towards independence. Again, when thinking about setting up A level student seminars/presentations, topics need to be clearly related to objectives which link back to the 'big picture'.
Since the development of AS and A2 post 2000, I've done significant thinking myself about the two assessment objectives that create the greatest unease namely AO3 and AO4: the need to show understanding of others' interpretations and the need to show knowledge of context. As I have said, both of these areas seem wholly legitimate, and areas that should continue to be central to literary studies whatever their manifestation within specifications and assessment objectives. The question for teachers is how do you stop 'other interpretations' becoming some kind of pseudo undergraduate, and ultimately misleading, course in literary theory, and prevent the study of 'contexts' turning into a history lesson, with the end result being students who offload paragraphs of contextual baggage in coursework assignments and examination essays.
With my student teachers, I spend a session experimenting with different classroom activities, all of which seem to me to be picking up on good teaching and learning around texts, but which seem to be particular drawing attention to the assessment objectives in question. The 'What's My Line' game, where different members of a group assume a different role and then offer an interpretation of a poem from that perspective is always fun the easiest example is to read a World War 1 poem, and evaluate it from the position of a conscript, a volunteer, a general or a politician. The literary theory version of 'What's My Line' asks students to offer a view of a poem from a particular critical perspective.
Another activity I've seen used to great effect in the classroom is the short film adaptation of a poem (e.g. Wordsworth's 'Solitary Reaper') with different groups given a brief to create a storyboard accentuating a different aspect of the poem. I was very interested, too, in the work done by one student teacher last year, who, after our A level taught sessions devised a 'This Is Your Life' activity linked to her class' study of Doctor Faustus. To address context in a stimulating way, she gave students in the class roles of people connected with Marlowe (university peers, fellow playwrights, etc...) and then role-played an episode of the famous show, with each student being brought on to the set to relate their particular anecdote about the star of the show.
I've attached a couple of examples of classroom activities I use in sessions with student teachers here:
Throughout all these activities, the emphasis is on the student teachers to evaluate how useful they would be in a classroom context, and to evaluate the extent to which they allow an active engagement with the text and with the assessment objectives without it being reduced to jumping through a hoop or clambering over a hurdle. My assertion would be that these activities enable meaningful teaching and learning around the texts whilst enabling an explicit engagement with the AOs.