So it’s that time of year – revision is upon us! The problem at hand is no longer how to teach new material; instead, we’re looking for ways to ensure that the spectrum of texts, techniques and skills covered since last June are securely understood and readily accessible for all of our pupils.
One question that seems to come up a lot with my Intermediate 2 English class is how sure I am that they will find suitable questions in the critical essay section of their exam (an entirely valid concern). On Tuesday this issue arose once again, and once again I told my class that the chances of them not finding an appropriate question for Norman MacCaig’s Visiting Hour are as close to nil as makes no difference (we have, of course, studied other poems as well). The real issue, I reminded them, isn’t whether or not they can find one suitable question, but rather whether they can recognise and select the best available question (as over the past six years the vast majority of poetry questions have been eminently suitable for this particular text).
An hour or so later, during a free period, I started to really think this through, and I realised that if I could find a way to show them the importance of choosing the right question, then I would surely also be able to assess and develop their detailed knowledge of the text and its techniques (a non-negotiable pre-requisite of effective decision making in this context). A few different ideas came and went before the following occurred to me:
‘The Poetry Bracket’ at the end of the lesson, with 2008 Question 8 the eventual winner
This, then, is The Poetry Bracket, an idea adapted from American competitive sports. Here’s how it works:
Each of the poetry questions from the last 6 years is represented by the appropriate code (for example, question 9 from the 2010 paper is 10-9 in the top right corner) and each year is grouped together. This means that when you begin only the spaces on the far left and far right are completed, with the rest being filled as you work your way through a series of competitions between the various questions. Once you have made your ‘Bracket’ on the board, and handed out copies of the Intermediate 2 poetry questions from the last six years, you’re ready to go.
The first step is to select the most appropriate question for each particular year, with the winner going on to the next round of the competition. There would be a number of ways to complete this stage but I decided to use a whole-class discussion followed by a vote.
Once the best question from each year has been selected, the top three on each side of The Bracket must compete – once again I led a class discussion for this section, although this time I pushed the pupils much more to really argue their case, often pitting two pupils who disagreed directly against one another. By this stage in the process I found that most pupils – even those who had been reluctant to express their opinion openly and vocally in the initial rounds – were getting involved and gaining in confidence. At the end of this stage you will are left with two remaining contenders, and at this point the whole process becomes even more entertaining.
In order to debate the contest between the final two questions the room was split in three, with those strongly in favour of one option on either side of the room and undecided pupils in the middle; then the gloves came off. The ‘team’ on either side had to argue for their chosen question as persuasively as possible, with my only role being to facilitate this discussion by bringing different pupils into the debate to support team-mates or challenge opponents. In the end, the victors succeeded not only because they argued well for their own side, but because they demonstrated that the answer that could be written for their question would also – if done well – incorporate the question of their opponents. What matters, they realised, is not choosing the easiest question to understand or the most obvious choice for the text, but rather finding the question that would allow them to write the most sophisticated response.
At the end of the process it was clear that the intentions of the lesson – to improve pupils’ ability to select an appropriate question for their text whilst also enhancing their knowledge and understanding of the texts – had been successfully achieved, as the quality of discussion around appropriate essay questions had markedly improved from between the first and last stages of The Bracket process. Furthermore, in the end, the pupils did select what I would consider to be the best available question from a selection of the 18 available. I’ll certainly be using this approach again to enhance my revision process for poetry, prose and drama.
(This post has also been published on my own blog: I’ve Been Thinking)