Lessons from the past
I was recently doing a clear-out of old books and materials at the English and Media Centre, to make space on the shelves for the vast quantities of fresh material I've been collecting for the new A Level specifications for 2008. Most of the contents of the old box files were happily tipped into the bin--no longer relevant and unlikely to be of future use. But one box, right in the far corner, escaped my cleaning zeal--a collection of long-forgotten A Level AEB 660 coursework folders, retained by me after the assessment process had been completed, perhaps as exemplification for an A Level Inset course or for future teaching purposes. Gold dust!
Suddenly, at this critical moment of change in 2008, here was evidence of a different approach to Literature teaching in the early 1990s and one that, at least in part, is being revisited in the new specifications. While the late 90s and 2000s saw a shift away from coursework (reduced to 20% and then raised to 30% in 2000) and a scepticism about the value of anything other than critical essay writing as a means of assessing literary knowledge and understanding, the new specifications have reinstated the importance of both. Coursework is now compulsory (up to a maximum of 40%) and the word 'creativity' is liberally sprinkled through the Subject Criteria and specifications. Moreover, one of the most important changes in the new A Level English Literature 2008 is the opportunity to demonstrate literary knowledge and understanding of texts through creative, re-creative or transformational writing. Offered by all the specifications as a coursework option (never a requirement), the creative/transformative possibilities vary, though all require a commentary to support the writing.
Those 660 folders from the 1980s tell an interesting story, and, before I leap forward to 2008, I'll briefly pull out one or two points that emerge from them.
AEB 660 was 100% coursework. If you look at just one folder, that of a student called Abena, she has 9 pieces of writing, of which the majority are broadly what might conventionally be termed critical essays. However in one piece, she writes an extraordinary additional chapter of Jane Eyre, written before reading Chapter 29, with a commentary explaining her choices (including detailed exploration of uses of imagery, address to reader, character behaviour in relation to the rest of the novel, and prose style). Here is an extract:
In the days after I was taken into Moor House I had no
comprehension of time. I had fought a bitter war within and
when the battle had concluded my morality had been the
victor, but somewhere inside my soul the passion lay
dormant, waiting for a time and place when it would rise
again, when the gaping wounds covering my heart would
heal and I would rediscover happiness.
Under the darkness of the covers, I tormented myself
with tortuous thoughts of a dark house where flames
illuminated the windows and lies roamed the corridors.
Inside, sat a dark, brooding man, his face contorted with
pain or hatred, maybe thinking of me, and unable to stop
myself I thought of the mad creature in the attic whose
pitiful existence had proved to be the largest obstacle
between me and happiness.
The covers were my barrier against the merciless wind of
the outside world. Under them I found a welcome escape
from the gales which had broken my heart and blown away
my life. I lived in a fantasy land of my own making, a land
like those of my childhood fairytales, and there I was safe
Another is a creative piece of autobiographical writing, sparked off by reading Derek Walcott's Another Life but free of close textual comment--a 'text free' piece of creative writing inspired by her A Level reading. A third is a task that could be termed 'creative/critical'--her own selection of poems for an anthology, in which she writes the introduction to the anthology, rationalising the choice of poems and their connections with each other. …