Mary King is an English teacher with responsibility for A level in an Academy in Lewisham. Confused students and unpredictable exam results inspired her to reflect on learning in relation to the AS English Literature exam unit Aspects of Narrative, (the AS, or Advanced Subsidiary Level, is the first year of the A Level, and is usually taken at age 17, in young people’s penultimate year of school). What started as an investigation into the Literature curriculum and the gap between GCSE and A level study rather unexpectedly turned into a project on the use of creative writing in AS lessons. She found herself researching the relationship between creativity, culture, and agency, and looking closely at the creative writing and class discussions of her two year 12 groups. One of the things that most surprised her was the social nature of much of the learning that took place around re-creative tasks: discussing, negotiating and reading work aloud was a key aspect of lessons centred around re-creativity.
My interest in investigating learning at AS level stemmed from observing some of the difficulties my students encountered: there is a huge difference in ways of studying and assessing literature from GCSE to AS. Additionally, the Literature specification that my school follows, AQA B, includes an AS exam on Aspects of Narrative which requires students to respond to texts in a very specific way. The unit’s focus is “how narratives are constructed by authors, and the different ways in which they can be responded to by readers” (AQA, 2013, p.5). However, due to time and exam pressures, in my experience the AS course often involves too much cramming of restrictive exam technique and not enough exploring students’ responses.
Encouraging students to write themselves seemed to be a better way of directing their attention to the narrative choices writers make when constructing a text, so I decided to look at ways of using writing in my lessons.
Little Red Riding Hood and Time Setting
One focus for my analysis was a lesson in which I introduced my year 12 students to some of the Aspects of Narrative by asking them to re-create a familiar fairytale, changing one narrative decision – for example, using a different narrator or setting. This task led to a particularly effective piece of writing from one student, who transformed the fairytale into a sinister modern-day encounter with a paedophile lifeguard:
“The lifeguard from earlier looked down on her, his once welcoming smile now turned up in an eerie smirk as he raised his finger to his lips.
When this student read her work aloud, the rest of the class were impressed by the way she had transformed a familiar children’s story into something much more real and threatening.
The exercise illustrated the implications of changing the time setting of a story from unspecified past to modern day, a topic many of the students struggle with when responding to exam questions.
Another key lesson was on the novel Enduring Love by Ian McEwan. This novel has a terrible reputation with my AS students, in great part due to the narrative voice of Joe Rose, a character many of my students find it difficult to sympathise with. In studying Aspects of Narrative, voice was a central focus, particularly highlighted by a lesson on Chapter 9 of the novel. This chapter is interesting for its use of a purportedly different narrative perspective: that of Joe’s wife Clarissa. The focus of my lesson was to interrogate this perspective because in fact McEwan is not really giving us Clarissa’s “real” voice: rather, it is Joe inventing Clarissa’s perspective: “Or at least, from that point [of view] as I later construed it” (McEwan, 1997, p.79). This is a complex concept to grasp; the reader has to grapple with the layers of reality: the fictional character of Joe is constructing a fictional voice for Clarissa. After reading, I set my students the task of re-writing the chapter from their own version of Clarissa’s voice.
This lesson was interesting in part for the way the students resisted my creative task: very few students produced the kind of empathetic writing that I had set out to elicit. Instead, students used the activity to express their own feelings about the book: one example began “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit…” This was a reminder that “there’s not necessarily an absolute correspondence between what I set up as a writing task and how students interpret that task” (Doecke & McClenaghan, 2011, p.66). Andrew McCallum states that re-creative writing allows students to “re-write so that something makes sense to them where the original does not” (McCallum, 2012, p.57); for my class, it did not make sense that a character as repugnant (to them) as Joe would have a loving or even somewhat loving partner, so they re-wrote the text in a way that made sense to them at the expense of the integrity of Clarissa’s voice.
One of my conclusions around the use of creative tasks was that such activities can generate memorable moments of learning, providing milestones for the group to refer back to: learning becomes a “social, distributed activity” (Yandell, 2008, p.85). This links to McCallum’s conception of “critical-creativity” in which he asserts that much learning is receptive in nature (McCallum, 2012, p.112).The way that re-creative tasks occurred in my classroom were not as individual writing activities; rather, discussing, negotiating and reading work aloud was a key aspect of the learning. Students learnt receptively from listening and responding to each other’s re-creations of Little Red Riding Hood as well as actively by creating their own versions. Additionally, it is not necessary for a complete piece of writing to be produced for learning to have taken place; the discussion can be just as constructive.
The more I researched, the more frustrated I became with the narrow teaching-to-the-test that I often find myself doing at AS level, and the more convinced I was that the main challenge for English A level teaching is to recognise “literature as a contested or dynamic aspect of culture” (NATE, 2004, p.10), or as Paolo Freire would put it, “unfinished”. Literature and culture are continually evolving entities, and narrative is a process of consciousness which all humans participate in, rather than a set of fixed features to be memorised. Re-creative tasks can help teachers to communicate this because they require students to recognise themselves as writers, not just readers; by re-creating their texts students are encouraged to recognise themselves as active agents making choices about the how to represent their narratives. Reading and writing, critiquing and designing, are linked processes (as recognised by McCallum in his term “critical-creativity”) which need to be developed in tandem. Writing remains a key tool for teaching reading with older students as well as younger ones: as Richards-Kamal suggests, creative writing exercises should not disappear as students move further up the school (Richards-Kamal, 2008, p.62).
Mary’s full research can be read here: Mary King PBE submission 2014
AQA (2013) GCE English Literature B (2745) 2014 onwards, Manchester: AQA Available online at http://filestore.aqa.org.uk/subjects/specifications/alevel/AQA-2745-W-SP-14.PDF (accessed 11/04/2014)
Doecke, B and McClenaghan, D (2011) Confronting Practice: Classroom investigations into language and learning, New South Wales: Phoenix
McCallum, A (2012) Creativity and Learning in Secondary English: Teaching for a creative classroom, London: Routledge
McEwan, I (1998) Enduring Love, London: Vintage
NATE (National Association for the Teaching of English) (2004), Text: Message: The Future of A Level English, Sheffield: NATE
Richards-Kamal, F (2008) ‘ ‘Personal’ and ‘critical’? Exam criteria, engagement with texts, and real readers’ responses’, English in Education, Vol. 42, No. 1, pp. 53 – 69
Yandell, J (2008) ‘Mind the Gap: Investigating test literacy and classroom literacy’, English In Education, Vol. 42, No. 1, pp. 70 – 87