Jill Carter: Just a Moment

The new Literature exams often ask students to analyse an extract and then to refer to texts as a whole. OCR uses the term ‘moments’: for example, ‘Explore at least two moments from… to support your ideas.’

I like this idea of selecting moments. My interpretation of this is that it designed to develop interpretation (deliberate diacope there). I think the exam boards want us to veer away from those hackneyed passages and understand that we no longer need to try to second guess which ones will appear on an exam paper or which will please the examiner. I believe that they would want students to use less obvious parts of the text as a ‘moment’ as long as they can use it to:

  • Justify their ideas and support their interpretations of characters, settings, themes etc.
  • Show a personal response

As English teachers, we are all guilty of picking over the same key extracts or moments in a text. Why don’t we instead teach students to make any part of a text into a moment? After all, the fact that that passage / moment is there means it must be of significance or the author wouldn’t have included it! I am always drawn to the section of Romeo and Juliet where Lord Capulet confronts and attacks Juliet about refusing to marry Paris. Time and again, I have taken this scene apart and it was only a few years ago that I really noticed the end of this scene where Juliet breaks with the Nurse. This had always been a bit of an ‘add-on’ for me – mainly because it never appeared as one of those set passages – but suddenly I saw it in a whole new light; I realised that this small part of the text had a significance and value which had hitherto gone unnoticed for me in the eternal cycle of the Balcony scene, Fight scene, Parents scene etc. Suddenly I saw that Juliet’s decision to cast off the Nurse is, in so many ways, far more important than the rift with her parents because it is the nurse to whom she has the real emotional attachment. We have the freedom to choose these kinds of less obvious moments but perhaps we lack the confidence to believe in them.

We need to teach students to make more or less any part of a text into a moment they can use, particularly if it strikes some kind of chord with them. You could consider the following ideas:

  • Do we ask them if they have a favourite ‘bit’ or if they would like to choose a part of the text to analyse? This could create a stimulating opportunity to make a case for ‘lesser’ used parts of a text.
  • As a revision exercise, before revisiting a text in detail, ask them which part(s) of the text they remember best and why.
  • Try dipping into the text at any point and see if you can ‘make a moment’ out of it – when I do this, I get a student to choose at random.
  • Take a seemingly unimportant moment out of the text and explore how this then affects the plot, the characterization, the setting.
  • Ask students to rank a range of moments you have chosen in order of significance.
  • Give groups different moments / extracts and ask each group to make a case as an editorial team for keeping this part of the text – or, for more able students, deleting it.

As for quoting from the text, why are we all so worried? When I was working with a student in the lead-up to recent English Literature exams, we chose a quotation at random from a text and then managed to make it apply to every past paper question we had. For example, Mr. Birling’s line in An Inspector Calls, ‘you allowed yourselves to be bluffed,’ would fit just about any question about the Inspector, the Birlings, Gerald or the themes of the play. And I picked that at random two minutes ago! Suggest that students try learning a small range of quotations like this and they can use them in any essay or exam. I know almost every teacher in the nation will struggle with this rote learning approach, but it could very well help your students avoid the last-minute stress and quotation-cramming that often comes with closed-book examinations.

We’d love to hear your own interpretation of ‘moments’ from the text. What hints and tips do you give students for choosing extracts and remembering quotations?