By York Notes Series Consultant, Mike Gould
1. Keep it personal
Your passion as an English teacher needs to shine through as much remotely as it does in the classroom. This can be tough without the personal connection you normally experience. However, there are ways of making your presence less remote: for example, if you have the confidence to post your own individual videos or podcasts then students can continue to hear your voice rather than just read your words. There are a whole host of resources on YouTube and other channels about the best way to create educational videos. Even if you are unable or unwilling to do this, communicating your love of literature in other ways – for example, recommending favourite lockdown reads or podcasts – can go a long way to reminding students that studying English Literature should be a pleasure, not a pain.
2. Keep it clear
We all know how some students struggle to keep up with working on texts. They can be disorganised, lose notes, or find it a challenge to even turn to the right section of a text. This might seem blindingly obvious, but make sure any work you set is absolutely clear about what section of a text is being referred to (for example, as well as a scene or chapter number, you could add a short summary – ‘when Elizabeth first visits Darcy’s country estate’). Students might also struggle to access the texts themselves, so where it is possible you could suggest sites where they can download free versions (such as Kindle and www.gutenberg.org). The same students may also need extra support in terms of having a secure knowledge of plot and characters. No doubt you will have already supplied them with quick summaries but there is no harm in either re-supplying these or pointing them to ones which they can download or read for themselves.
3. Widen access
One of the key issues the lockdown has thrown up is the lack of access many students have to their own laptop or personal space in which to work. While we as teachers have little power to change home circumstances, the work we set can at least acknowledge those difficulties. For example, if students have limited time on the family laptop, make sure that the work you set can be quickly downloaded or done without prolonged access to a larger screen or machine, or can be viewed on a smartphone. Setting reasonable schedules for producing work which takes into account differing work rates and home settings may also allay concerns about equality of access.
4. Don’t reinvent the wheel
One of the more positive aspects to emerge from the lockdown is the plethora of free material which has been made available to schools and students. Whilst you will of course need to curate carefully any content you suggest to your students, it will save you a lot of time and energy if professionally produced resources can engage your students. BBC Teach, BBC Bitesize, the British Library, and many educational publishers, such as ourselves, are making high quality resources free to access. Other blogs in this series have suggested particular sites, and our Introductory Packs for GCSE students on Macbeth, An Inspector Calls, A Christmas Carol and ‘Studying Poetry’ all contain a further resources section.
5. Change the angle
Whilst it may be a necessary part of the study process, the truth is that protracted essay writing, however well-intentioned, might be a tough sell to students in lockdown. You will already have lots of stimulating ways of exploring texts with students, but you could consider setting students a project, with a number of smaller tasks as part of it. For example, ‘Produce a scrap-book based on at least six of the poems from your GCSE anthology’ could entail: finding appropriate images from magazines or online (or taking photos); writing a ‘review’ of the poem in newspaper style; creating their own parallel poem using at least five lines of the original, and so on. The new angle needn’t be a whole project, it could be recording their own podcast, doing a rehearsed reading of a key scene or moment, posting ‘the top five villains from the texts I’m studying’, and so on. Whilst these tasks might not deliver the masterclass in essay structure you’d ultimately like, they might at least keep students engaged and motivated.
For students and teachers alike this is a challenging time, but your enthusiasm and passion for the subject and your thoughtful mediation of learning materials will go a long way towards mitigating the impact of the lockdown.
*COMING SOON: Check out our introductory packs for students who haven’t yet encountered An Inspector Calls or A Christmas Carol. Plus, help with Unseen Poetry.
Mike Gould is a former Head of English and Drama and author of over 150 books and other educational resources. He has worked as a lecturer in English and education at Brighton University.