So, once again, exam season is upon us. The course has been covered, all texts studied and we’re ready to rock ‘n’ roll. Yes? Well, no, not exactly. In the Higher English exam, pupils will have to sit a Close Reading (Comprehension) paper for one hour and forty five minutes and write two Critical Essays on Literature in ninety minutes. It’s a grueling challenge but one which is achievable if they are prepared and have worked hard. The spanner in the works is always the question which throws them, of course, and, for some, the indecision that that causes eats up much of their valuable time.
In this, the last week of teaching – I will see them for three days after Easter; just enough time for some last minute revision – I’ve been making things hard for them. Inadvertently in one case. The previous week they had sat the last controlled assessment I would give them. I corrected the Close Reading paper over the weekend and returned them on Tuesday. What I hadn’t accounted for was that, in my weekend exhaustion, I had corrected incorrectly. Where l had given marks to one pupil on a bright and cheerful Saturday morning, I had thought a similar but differently worded answer insufficient on a tired and ominous Sunday evening. Gulp.
However, instead of blushing and making my excuses; doing the right thing and giving the marks and getting on with it, I did what any self-respecting teacher might do to get out of a corner. I said to both who had spotted the problem: “Why do you think I gave a mark to this one and not that one? What is it about the language which might have made me do that?’ The old switcheroo.
What happened was really impressive. It became a whole class discussion with me on the fringes. Why is the teacher wrong here? They started debating the language used in each and how, perhaps, the answer should have been worded differently. They soon moved on to other examples and it took up the whole lesson. Really deep discussion about how they should be presenting answers in the exam took place. They still came to the conclusion that I was wrong, incidentally, but it was a great lesson.
The problem with the Critical Essay paper is that the questions, while usually general enough to always fit with texts studied, are unseen and that throws a lot of pupils. Having studied ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, ‘Hamlet’ and some poetry, how can they be sure what will come up? They can’t, of course. This week I trawled through all of the past papers to find seemingly impossible, or at least surprising, questions which they could answer; questions which didn’t seem to fit what we’d studied.
So we discussed how Shakespeare’s use of contrast between two characters was important to our understanding of one of them, instead of revenge or turning point. We discussed a play which explores the theme of love in difficult circumstances. We discussed how Holden Caulfield was affected by death and the effect of conflict in the novel. We discussed the cruelty of human nature in Salinger’s novel. Nothing completely impossible but certainly a departure from the topics we had discussed during our study of the literature and a different way of looking at what we knew about the texts.
Again, the discussions were deep and meaningful; they debated each point; dismissing some and confirming others. They leafed through the texts looking for evidence to argue their case. A superb lesson with limited intervention from me until the end.
Perhaps we do our pupils a disservice by making things too straightforward for them as they approach exams. Preparing them for the unexpected might be they way to calm those nerves, especially for the ones with a tendency to panic. This week I’ve been making things hard for them. Fingers crossed that they can produce the goods on the day.