The New English GCSEs: a pleasure, not a chore.
There seems to be an awful lot of flapping and worrying about teaching the new GCSEs. I’m not afraid to say that, in our humble little department, we’re quite enjoying it. We’ve had a long term plan since a couple of terms before we started delivering it to our (now Year 10) students after February half term, and both teachers and students are getting to grips with it nicely.
We’ve structured it in such a way that we’ll have all the Lit texts taught by the end of year 10, so that we can interleave fortnightly study blocks of each topic in year 11. We studied Lord of the Flies over the summer term, six poems from the cluster during the first half of the autumn term, and we’re just finishing off A Christmas Carol as we speak. After Christmas we’ll study four more poems, spend the best part of a term studying Macbeth and then finish the remainder of the poems off as we gently meander our way to the end of the year. Mock exams in June will mean an interlude to revise exam topics and practice exam skills, but this should be a fairly painless experience as our students practice the kind of skills they’ll need every week anyway.
The main reason for this is that (as I noted in a previous post, “The Big Question: raising challenge by dropping objectives”) all our lessons are now framed by a big learning question that students write an extended, exam style answer to at the end of the learning episode (it might take one or many more lessons to get students in a position where they can write an excellent answer). Our learning questions tend to use question stems from the new GCSE English papers or the questions are phrased in such a way that the questions naturally compel students to engage with skills and concepts required by the papers. For example, over the last three weeks, my year 10s have prepared for and answered the following questions:
- How does Dickens develop Scrooge’s character in Stave 2?
- How does Dickens use the Cratchit family?
- Why is The Ghost of Christmas Present so important?
- What effective structural features are apparent in Stave 3?
- How does Dickens make The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come so sinister?
- Why is Stave 5 such an effective ending?
Clearly this leads to an awful lot of written output by the class and can make marking a terrible headache, but we’ve alleviated this through the careful cultivation of great peer-assessment. Our students now expertly peer-assess each response that is produced and they are encouraged to make sure that they get peer-comments from at least three different students, in order to triangulate, enhance and vary the feedback. When peer-assessing, they are expected to read and taken into account previous comments left so these are not repeated, and they can build upon these if they see fit. Furthermore, the students have been carefully trained to use language from the mark scheme in order to ensure that the feedback they receive is useful, targeted and relevant. This means that our written feedback is pared right back to the minimum, and provide more of a QA for the comments already left.
The vast majority of our Year 10s also seem very pleased with the way we are delivering the new GCSE. (We recently had an LA monitoring review and the Y10 students were very forthright in praising the English provision they receive and the delivery of the new course). There’s a big emphasis on whole class discussion and debate, with group work only really used in the preparation stage when building up ideas to answer the Learning Question. We did a Literature mock with the Year 10s last week and the results were pretty good, which I take as validation of our methods.
Obviously we are not completely clear on what exactly the new grades will look like, but this doesn’t bother us too much as we are confident our understanding isn’t far off and, let’s be honest; everyone is in the same boat.
As with most people, our biggest concern is how we’re going to get the weaker students through these very challenging and lengthy terminal exams. But there is no magic bullet and we can’t beat ourselves up on this point; we just need to make sure they get plenty of practice at answering the sorts of questions they’ll be asked and try to make the texts as enjoyable and memorable as possible (we were told by AQA that it is still possible to get the highest marks through “references to the text” and that quotations weren’t mandatory, which hopefully means these students will be in with a fighting chance providing we can teach them techniques to activate and use their memories effectively).
So, all in all, a positive start to the new GCSEs. No doubt that there will be unforeseen failings and pitfalls as we move through the course, but I’m confident we have the resilience and flexibility to deal with these as they arise. There’s always a slight nagging worry when doing anything new, but hopefully there won’t be any real disasters. Famous last words…