By York Notes Series Consultant, Mike Gould
This April thousands of students will be working at home, and this presents particular challenges in terms of motivation and attainment. As teachers we are aware of the ‘summer dip’; how, over the course of the summer holidays, students often seem to go backwards in terms of skills and knowledge learned. In the current unprecedented circumstances, it’s natural to worry that this ‘dip’ will have been prolonged.
So, what can we do to address these issues? Perhaps the most important thing we can do is to offer students a balance between worthy, useful work and more relaxing, light touch activities. Ideally, combining both – for example, finding creative ways to approach set texts – is best, but what else can we as teachers do to make sure the ‘dip’ doesn’t become a ‘plunge’? Here are four suggestions:
1. Maintaining GCSE links
As teachers, we have probably all been asked to devise substantial schemes for students to follow at home. However, lighter, more accessible introductions to set texts might be a more productive approach at the beginning of what might be a lengthy absence from school.* Bear in mind that students could be encountering these texts for the first time, without the supportive setting of the classroom, so some ‘quick wins’ could help here. For example, you could give students simple plot summaries and structured activities around an opening scene or chapter, as well as links to respected sources such as the British Library which might have articles and images about a particular author or text. You will also be familiar with a range of film or television versions of texts, or be able to point them towards a great podcast or audio version of the text which might help with context or understanding writers’ effects. Tasks that engage the variety of students’ learning styles will also help, from drawing/sketching stage designs to performing or recording their own rehearsed readings of passages from texts or speeches from plays.
2. Reading enrichment
As teachers, we often encourage students to read widely, taking in a variety of texts from a range of sources, whether in print or online. However, we need to be aware of the anxieties that might be triggered by looking at online sources, such as news websites, even if the purpose is to point students to feature writing or other genres of text. Here, the set texts themselves will offer a form of enrichment which can take students out of themselves, but beyond that you could suggest a carefully-curated selection of other resources – perhaps available on www.gutenberg.org, introducing them to writers such as Katherine Mansfield or Willa Cather, or free Kindle texts on Amazon. Equally, websites such as www.poetryfoundation.org or www.poetryarchive.org can offer free access to lesser and more well-known poets. Students with particular interest in specific genres can be pointed towards sites such as www.asimovs.com for science fiction or the best gothic fiction on www.goodreads.com.
3. Developing cultural capital through audio and video
This time away from school could also provide a key window in which ‘cultural capital’ is developed. A common complaint we make as educators is that students often have a narrow or limited view of the world and the language used to describe it, which makes references in many of the books they study obscure.
Even if not directly related to set texts, the variety of audio and visual material available to students can stimulate thought and develop vocabulary and other language skills. Podcasts like George the Poet’s, audio books such as Call of the Wild, or silly comedies such as The Pin, all on BBC Sounds, feature brilliantly evocative and inventive language use. Social groups are rediscovering a love of quizzes and word-play games, all of which can stimulate minds and language when personal contact is limited.
On a more serious note, the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre are streaming some of their best productions for free viewing.
4. Freeing the writer inside
Whilst we know not every student will lock themselves in an attic room and bash out their bildungsroman, this time does provide a window for students to express themselves creatively. A key message we should put out is that it is ok to write for pleasure, without the fear of writing being marked or matched to assessment objectives. As teachers, we are the trusted arbiters of learning, so if you give students the licence to write poetry, create that wacky sci-fi story or sketch out that graphic novel, then there’s every chance students will listen!
As teachers it is natural that we want the best for students, even if we aren’t able to engage with them in the usual way. Hopefully, these suggestions, alongside your own schemes and ideas, will help them all get through these challenging times.
*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.