Collaborating with the Thomas Hardy Society

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The last blog post introduced why we created GCSE resources, while this one explains how we’ve used them in events with teachers and students.

Knowing that Thomas Hardy’s works lent themselves well to the themes of Diseases of Modern Life, and that the Thomas Hardy Society had good links with educators in the area, we decided to team up to produce two free workshops: the first for teachers of GCSE English Language, the second for students. Dr Karin Koehler, Lecturer in 19th Century Literature at Bangor University, and Andrew Hewitt, who is undertaking a PhD on Thomas Hardy at the University of Hull, worked with Dr Catherine Charlwood of the Diseases of Modern Life project, to make these events happen.

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With teachers…

Our workshop for teachers, held on 12th April, was called ‘Engaging Students in Nineteenth-Century Prose: Research-Based Resources for Teachers’ and was held at the iconic Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum in Central Dorchester. Originally built in 1797, (much) later Hardy served as a magistrate at the court, and Martha Brown – whose hanging in 1856 Hardy witnessed – is said to be the inspiration for Hardy’s Tess.

The free seminar directly addressed the potential lack of familiarity with C19th non-fiction texts, and the resulting lack of confidence teaching them, by emphasising the overlap between fiction and non-fiction and hence the possibility of using similar methods to approach them.

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Using Post-Its to capture what students say about non-fiction and the challenges/anxieties in teaching this aspect of the GCSE course

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Never let it be said that the DoML team aren’t passionate about engaging others!

The workshop placed extracts from scientific and medical texts alongside selections from Hardy’s novels and poems. For example, an extract from Mantell’s Wonders of Geology was juxtaposed with the cliff-hanger scene from Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes. Teachers were invited to use techniques familiar to them from teaching fiction and poetry to approach the non-fiction.

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Dr Karin Koehler explaining the intermingling of literary and scientific texts in Victorian periodicals like The Athenaeum Journal of Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts

We were joined by a team from the University of Exeter headed by Professor Angelique Richardson outlining the range of resources for schools developed as part of the Hardy and Heritage project which support the teaching of 19th- and 20th-century non-fiction. PhD student, former secondary school teacher, and Hardy Society member, Stephanie Meek, led teachers through exercises to begin planning ways of using the resources in their own lesson plans and schemes of work, while Head of English at King Arthur’s School, Wincanton, and incoming PhD student, John Blackmore, related the importance of working with the archives of cultural institutions and university researchers to new Ofsted demands for a knowledge-rich curriculum and the interweaving of cultural capital.

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Stephanie Meek leading teachers through tasks

An important factor Steph highlighted was that as a teacher she didn’t know that universities wanted to work with schoolteachers, and I had the same experience. When universities reach out to schools it is rarely to the individual English teacher. If you’re lucky, there is a page with a staff list with email addresses on a school website, so that you can direct your enquiry to the Head of English. Increasingly and understandably, there is often only a school office/reception email. As a plea to anyone in schools receiving invitations to work with a university: please forward them to all of the relevant staff – even if you can’t attend yourself, someone else might like to. It’s all too easy to ‘give up’ on working with schools as the reply rate is always low. However, that can – I hope – change, and those who do reply will always make it more than worth your while!

After lunch, Catherine Charlwood introduced the Diseases of Modern Life GCSE resources, explaining the thinking behind their creation, and how they might support learning in the classroom. Then teachers had to get hands-on, attempting a sample exam question themselves in relation to a source using extracts from art critic John Ruskin’s letters:

03 You now need to refer only to Source B from lines 40 to 50.

How does the writer use language to describe  the experience of being on a steam-boat?

[12 marks]

Do please feel free to play along at home using the online source! Be warned: the experience of your child’s new exam syllabus may inspire a worrying respect for your teenager…

In a session called ‘Thomas Hardy and the Diseases of Modern Life’, we put passages from Hardy’s output alongside the GCSE resources the project has created, as well as providing teachers with some C20th or C21st articles as possible points of comparison. On the theme of ‘The health of desk-bound city-workers’, teachers looked at the ‘Preservation of Health’ resource alongside Hardy’s poem ‘Coming up Oxford Street: Evening’ and the 1891 short story ‘On the Western Circuit’; while the satirical ‘The Health of the Labourer’ resource from Punch was juxtaposed with Hardy’s 1883 essay ‘The Dorsetshire Labourer‘.

Teachers were generous in their feedback and also gave us useful pointers for where we might take such educational outreach work next. For instance, one teacher noted that “Resources to aid with teaching them eg. Syntax and sentences structures that are characteristic of C19th prose would be highly beneficial to us.” We took on board the idea of sentence structure and made that a key feature we kept returning to in our student day. 86% of participants reported an increase in confidence for teaching C19th non-fiction as a result of the workshop, and a range of quotations from their feedback show how valuable it is not just to work with teachers (HE to school), but to bring teachers into contact with each other (school to school):

“It was wonderful to engage with colleagues in a discussion in each section of how fiction and non-fiction are inextricably linked. Many thanks for a brilliant day. ”

“Some useful links across fiction/non-fiction made, especially regarding how people read prose (journals, magazines, etc. – and the crossover between the two. Will definitely be using all of the resources provided 🙂 ”

“As a non-teacher this day has been so insightful to the curriculum and the resources will be a great tool for inspiration for creating learning sessions. ” (from a National Trust Learning Manager)

“This project was an important part of the Hardy Society’s outreach to schools in 2019,” said Andrew Hewitt, Student Representative for the Thomas Hardy Society. “Our outreach programme includes poetry workshops and writing competitions and more. Our next project involves working with teachers to develop a ‘Wessex’ scheme of work to support the teaching of Hardy in his time and place, and we would love to hear from anyone who’d like to be involved.”

 

With students…

On 7th May 2019, we followed this with a workshop for Year 10 students, called ‘Writing about Illness and Well-being in the Nineteenth Century’, again held in the beautiful Learning Room of the Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum, Central Dorchester. Students from the The Thomas Hardye School in Dorchester were joined by peers from Holyrood Academy, Somerset, to exchange ideas and enlarge their thinking. Before the day started in earnest, we played a cracking round of Mind-Boggling Medical History, where some students got to flex their ‘Medicine Through Time’ GCSE History muscles, and others applied critical reasoning to the (seemingly) fantastical statements. Please download the cards from the website to play in your own schools, or homes!

The first session, led by Andrew Hewitt, took students through a series of passages and poems from Hardy on the theme of nature and well-being. Students were encouraged to think critically about what we mean when we say ‘nature’ and to attend to the text at the level of the line or sentence, to prepare the AO2 skills we’d be bolstering throughout the day. All students were given a booklet of extracts to keep them thinking and possibly writing about Hardy, nature and well-being long after the workshop. That said, there was already impressive student knowledge of The Woodlanders in evidence!

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Andrew Hewitt leading the Nature and well-being in Thomas Hardy session

Catherine Charlwood then led students through notions of illness and well-being from the point of view of science and medicine, using foundational quotations from the Diseases of Modern Life project, as well as sample GCSE resources. For instance, students read either the first or second half of an extract from Benjamin Ward Richardson’s 1872 Diseases of Modern Life about train travel, and explained to their peers what Ward Richardson’s opinion of trains was and – crucially – how they knew. This encouraged students to teach each other, and to show how they were coming to their analytical decisions.

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Student assumptions/initial reactions to the idea of “scientific and medical writing”

After lunch, Karin Koehler looked at fiction versus non-fiction, this time eliciting Year 10 responses to the separate categories of fiction and non-fiction. Using examples from Hardy’s own writing practice, she showed students how Hardy used non-fiction sources as inspiration for his novels and stories and – by having them analyse a fiction passage first – showed students how the same language devices and careful vocabulary choices are at work in both fiction and non-fiction.

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Post Its detailing student expectations of fiction texts and – separately – non-fiction texts.

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Dr Karin Koehler leading students through fiction and non-fiction texts

 

We were very fortunate to be joined by the Thomas Hardy Society’s Academic Director, published novelist and poet Dr Faysal Mikdadi, who led a creative writing session. Using two brief extracts from Darwin on the humble origins of human creatures and Hardy’s poem ‘An August Midnight’, Dr Mikdadi used a tried and tested way of engaging learners with poetry. He shared the very short prose pieces and the poem with them, asked simple factual questions, extended the questions to a search for surface meaning, elicited deeper meanings from the students and, finally, suggested that they could write their own poem either emulating Hardy’s, reacting to his poem or writing anything inspired by him or by Darwin. As the students composed their poems, Dr Mikdadi, and other adults present, engaged with any who needed support, encouraged those who were reluctant and primed three potential readers to prepare to read their poem. They did so really well. Once the poems were read, students gave positive responses and critical friend suggestions on ways forward.

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Dr Faysal Mikdadi leading the creative writing workshop

In our final session, students and teachers collaborated on answering an AQA exam-style question 3 for Paper 2 (the 12 mark ‘How does the writer use language to…?’ analysis question). While everyone had the same text, describing medical students watching an operation, half the room focused on one section of the text, and half the following section. This way, when we fed back, students got to annotate further and see how peers had approached the task. The questions are below if you would like to replicate this with your own students:

03 You now need to refer only to Source B from lines 17 to 27

How does the writer use language to describe the preparations for the operation?

[12 marks]

 

03 You now need to refer only to Source B from lines 28 to 39

How does the writer use language to describe the operation?

[12 marks]

 

Students approached this task with confidence, and – with reference to the mark scheme on the PowerPoint throughout – upped the ante in their written responses. Giving feedback on the experience of the whole day, we were delighted to read students note such things as

“It has given me the idea that English is more than just analysing language”

“I wanted to take English Literature for A-level and this has given me more inspiration to do so.”

“It’s made me more open to explore historic events through English texts rather than through history textbooks while at school.”

“It has made me think of multiple ways to answer GCSE questions”

Survey data further revealed that 87% were now more interested in the Victorians; 87% more interested in English; 69% more interested in books and literature; 94% more interested in the history of medicine; and 69% more interested in the relationship between literature and science. Never have I enjoyed compiling survey data more!

All of the facilitators agreed that we’d been fortunate to work with such an impressive group of young people, and we’re very grateful to both the Thomas Hardye School and Holyrood Academy for participating and for their work in helping students attend. Thanks must also go to the staff of Shire Hall who provided a fantastic service on both occasions, and who come highly recommended as a venue. Be sure to keep an eye on the Thomas Hardy Society website for future educational outreach initiatives and events: the above hopefully shows quite how important such work with schools is, as well as what fun it can be for all concerned!

 

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Post-seminar delighted/relieved collaborators. L-R: Dr Catherine Charlwood, Dr Karin Koehler, and Andrew Hewitt. All three are proud members of The Thomas Hardy Society.

Creating Research-Based GCSE English Resources: How Scholars of the Nineteenth Century can Help Schoolteachers

Are you a Victorianist or a scholar of the nineteenth century? Did you know that under that new 9-1 GCSE English Language syllabus (taught from 2015) – for the first time – asks students to analyse unseen C19th non-fiction? Those kinds of texts which researchers work with day in day out are now needed for teachers and students of GCSE English. And there are a lot of them! There were 706,255 entries for English Language in 2018 (according to Ofqual).

AQA (the most popular specification) and OCR both have an exam in which students are faced with an unseen C19th non-fiction text paired with a C20th or C21st one on the same topic. While examples of modern texts are readily available, how are teachers supposed to find the time to search out C19th sources? Having taught this course myself, I know well how frustrating such a hunt can be when you’re already pushed for time. Given that the Diseases of Modern Life project already works with an interesting and eclectic body of C19th non-fiction texts, we thought we would use the research resources database we are preparing to select a range of appropriate texts which could then be fashioned into classroom-ready GCSE English Language resources as they would appear on the AQA exam paper: complete with an initial explanation, line numbers and glossary. The resulting corpus of resources is now freely available online within the Faculty of English’s Outreach pages, with the texts in downloadable PDF form (just click and print for that last-minute revision session!).

 

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The Diseases of Modern Life resources page on the English Faculty website. Downloadable PDFs of C19th sources are easily available on the right.

 

Our hope is that teachers – and students – will use these resources to gain familiarity with C19th non-fiction writing, in all its weird and wonderful guises. All of the sources are based on the project’s research interests, but range from doctors explaining anxiety; to how to design a girls’ school; to advice for mothers on clothing children; to the problems of pollution in the newly industrialised urban city. There’s plenty of fun to be had in reading about nervous medical students watching their first operation, Punch’s satirical take on the Duke of Richmond toasting the labourer, or Ruskin’s utter hatred of steamboats – ‘the most disagreeable floating contrivance imaginable’.

The main aims of these resources are:

  • to help teachers by providing the resources they need
  • to allow students to build up their reading speed for C19th non-fiction – only by exposure to more texts can they get used to them (and the exam allows only 15 minutes to read the unseen C19th source AND the paired C20th/C21st one AND the questions)
  • to allow students to practice the skill of literary analysis tested by Assessment Objective 2, by giving them samples to annotate and criticise

 

The Diseases of Modern Life project was delighted to run a stall at the inaugural teachers’ conference at the University of Oxford’s English Faculty on 27th April. This wonderful event allowed teachers to experience two lectures from faculty academics, hear about the different resources available from the Bodelian Libraries, the Ashmolean museum, Oxford’s Faculty of Education and Oxplore. With free lunch and a tour of Hertford College to boot, it was a pretty incredible day – thank you to Rebecca Costello for inviting and hosting us.

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Teachers discussing GCSE resources with Dr Catherine Charlwood. Photo credit: Nathan Stazicker

 

The most common response I’ve heard from teachers is “we can easily find C20th or C21st sources, but the C19th ones? They’re the problem.” And this is where those who are already working with C19th non-fiction on a professional basis stand to make a real intervention into what happens in the classroom. While you, staunch BAVS member, might be pals with the Pall-Mall Gazette, friends of the Fortnightly Review or a wizard with the Wellesley Index, this is specialised knowledge which can be taken for granted in universities but would form the basis for a beautiful collaboration with schools. So if you’ve ever considered putting your research to work in the national curriculum, the new 9-1 GCSE English Language syllabus gives scholars of the nineteenth century a great opportunity to do so. Victorianists, assemble!

 

In the follow-up blog, I’ll explore how these resources provided the inspiration for a collaboration with the Thomas Hardy Society and two workshops: one for teachers of GCSE English Language, the other for students.

 

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Where do our resources come from? Dr Catherine Charlwood points teachers in the direction of the project! Photo credit: Nathan Stazicker