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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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!