Graham Elsdon looks at ways to help the new year 11 classes cope with post-lockdown English exam preparation
The tentacles of the horrible virus are long and inevitably they have wrapped themselves around the world of education. Lives have been lost, the yearly rhythm has been lost and time has been lost. Leaving aside the worrying health issues of returning to school, one of the main concerns facing teachers is how the new year 11 students will cope with looming exam preparation after a bout of disruption.
Schools and teachers have done a superb job offering support from afar, but there is no substitute for the real classroom experience. As ever in times of crisis, divisions in society have been magnified: those students from supportive, time-rich homes may flourish happily, but for many, lockdown seems like time lost. So how can we help students rationalise the challenge of seemingly vast English literature courses once the sympathy, shock and acknowledgement of unfairness recedes?
Teacher as role model
Some of the challenges are mental ones. We can help students see that in the real world, humans are always on the back foot. There is never enough time, but somehow we make it all work, often by prioritising, rolling our sleeves up, seeking help, getting emotional, using stress as a motivator and all those other routes by which we get a seemingly impossible job done. We’ve all delivered an underprepared lesson which hits the spot. We’ve all contributed to a university seminar on a book we’ve only just read. We’ve all just managed to hit a series of badly-timed marking and report deadlines. Teachers are excellent role models and sources of advice on how to work under pressure. We can guide them.
There is also the practical issue of subject material to be learnt. In English literature, there seems to be acres of texts to cover, some of which would have been done in the spring term. There’s also a lot of online noise – a cacophony of advice, approaches, tips, mnemonics, videos, courses, short cuts and sometimes the actual texts get lost in the melee. So more than ever, making the reading and discussion of the texts themselves is absolutely central.
A useful question to ask any student is ‘how many times have you read this book?’, because in the end, if you know what happens in what order, who does what, and what the big ideas are in a text, then you can answer any exam question.
Cutting through the noise and centralising text knowledge is key – the other surrounding material can be helpful, but confidence comes from knowing the text, and this is where students have to step up. There is no avoiding it, but students will have to work harder than previous years. If like me, you’ve ever bemoaned the fact that independent learning is just a pipedream and students are more dependent than ever, this is the time when it might actually happen. Being honest and supportive about extra expectations is important. One of the unexpected benefits may well be a group of year 12s with better study skills than previous years.
The benefit of lost time
We can also help students see that the lockdown period is actually a time of growth rather than one of loss. I’m pretty sure you can sit GCSE maths when you’re 10 and get full marks if you’re very bright. This is not the case for literature, because you need to live a bit to engage with its themes – it requires some grasp of how life and humans operate. Literature explores suffering, love, unfairness, politics and power, and this unusual period we’re living through has exposed students to some horrible and beautiful aspects of life. It may be that our students bring a new level of maturity and understanding to the texts they study.
We can reassure students that the brain continues working and people develop merely through the process of growing older. Rabindranath Tagore’s poem Lost Time put this succinctly in a way that may chime for some of the teenagers we teach:
I was tired and sleeping on my idle bed
and imagined all work had ceased.
In the morning I woke up
and found my garden full with wonders of flowers.
The awareness that humans are resilient and life works out in mysterious ways at times is important for students to remember. Adults are good at seeing this wider perspective, but we also know that when things don’t go to plan, life goes on. Underperformance doesn’t mean that the world ends. Maybe our most important job next year is to impart these essential life lessons.
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Graham Elsdon is a teacher, author and consultant at www.theenglishline.com