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

 

 

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Event: Free Workshop for GCSE English Language Students!

On Tuesday 7th May, Diseases of Modern Life will be back in Dorset this time to talk to students on the theme of Illness and Well-being in the Nineteenth Century. Using our free GCSE resources, we will situate Victorian ideas of health within the context of local literary legend Thomas Hardy’s writings, and encourage students to explore the links between fiction and non-fiction, as well as how preparation for English Language can aid you in English Literature (hint: it tests the same skills!).

The workshop will take place at Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum in Central Dorchester, and the full programme can be seen below. We have sent invitations to all schools local to the area, but if you happen to be able to come along then please email catherine.charlwood@ell.ox.ac.uk to book places for your students – we’d be delighted to welcome you.

This workshop is the result of a collaboration between Diseases of Modern Life and the Thomas Hardy Society, specifically Dr Karin Koehler of Bangor University, Andrew Hewitt, who is undertaking a PhD on Thomas Hardy at the University of Hull, and – especially for the creative responses session – published author and Academic Director of the Thomas Hardy Society, Dr Faysal Mikdadi.

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 WRITING ABOUT ILLNESS AND WELL-BEING IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY

7 May 2019 

Free English GCSE Students Workshop
at Shire Hall, Central Dorchester

to help prepare students for unseen non-fiction prose element of the GCSE exam

10.00-10.30am Arrival and registration
10.30-10.45am Welcome and overview of the day

·         Why we’re here: learning objectives and expectations for the day

·         How we’ll approach the topic of illness and well-being: what topics we’ll be reading about and discussing, and a chance to raise any concerns

10.45-11.30am Nature and well-being in Thomas Hardy

We will discuss a selection of poems/passages from the work of Thomas Hardy about the interactions, positive and negative, between people and nature. This will be our starting-point for thinking about what role nature might play in people’s well-being (globally and individually).

11.30am- 12.15pm Illness and well-being from the point of view of science and medicine

We will introduce a selection of non-fiction texts highlighting typical nineteenth-century concerns about illness and well-being – for example, the impact of sedentary lifestyles in urban settings and different theories about mental health – and explore some of the challenges for a 21st-century reader of understanding, analysing, and responding to such texts.

12.15-1.00pm FREE LUNCH
1.00-1.45pm Fiction versus non-fiction

Drawing on more examples from Thomas Hardy, who used non-fiction sources as an inspiration for his novels and stories, we will consider the relationship of fiction and non-fiction (which were less separate in nineteenth-century culture than now) to inform the analysis of nineteenth-century prose. How is reading a scientific or medical text different from reading fiction or poetry? How is it similar? How can English Language help you with English Literature and the other way around?

1.45-2.30pm Responding creatively to nineteenth-century concerns about illness and well-being

We will prepare creative responses – e.g. poems, short narratives, drawings – to the anxiety about the disconnection of nature and humans, in Hardy’s day and in ours. What links the nineteenth century to the present?

2.30-2.45pm Afternoon break

Refreshments provided

2.45-3.30pm Practical exercise

The day will end with a practical session in which participants and facilitators will collaborate on preparing an answer to a mock exam question featuring an unseen extract of nineteenth century literary non-fiction.

3.30-3.45pm Feedback
3.45pm Workshop ends

 

Teachers and students of English Literature at GCSE, IB or A Level might also be interested in the Thomas Hardy Society Essay Competition, which has a deadline of 30th April. As well as a £50 Amazon voucher, you could end up being published in a Thomas Hardy Society journal!

‘British moths’, ‘Old wedding cake’. An unusual museum taxonomy.

In the nineteenth century, natural history was an increasingly popular pursuit. As our sister project Constructing Scientific Communities is exploring, the 1800s saw the growth of several specialist organisations and periodicals devoted to the field. Enthusiasts from various sections of society – both ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ – worked to build up collections of their own, or formed networks with others to share their findings and contribute to classificatory schemes.

One such enthusiast was Mervyn Grove Palmer, a naturalist who spent several years  travelling throughout Central and South America in the early 20th century. Many of the specimens that he collected can still be seen today in Devon’s Ilfracombe Museum. Opened by Palmer in 1932, the Museum housed his growing collection of specimens from afar as well as items donated by local people providing an insight into Devon’s social history. In the main room of the Museum is an unassuming set of dark wood display drawers, adorned with plain typed labels indicating their contents. Many of these drawers contain familiar natural history displays – beetles, moths, and other insects. In one, butterflies are arranged in precise formation, as if flying away from the viewer, their bright yellow and vivid orange wings perfectly preserved.

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In another, bird’s eggs are nestled into fluffy clouds of cotton wool – spotted, speckled, pearlescent, sometimes cracked. Their labels are handwritten on delicate ribbons of paper strung between each grouping, adding aesthetic appeal to the display at the same time as they organise it.

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There are also less familiar, and unexpected, items in the drawers. Several hold timber samples, again artfully arranged  into patterns: Hungarian ash, almond, pine, elm, American walnut, brown burr oak.

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Most striking, though, are the drawers that work to construct rather novel ‘natural histories’ of local life and custom. Beneath drawers containing British moth specimens is a suddenly incongruous label that reads ‘Old wedding cake’.

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Opening the drawer, we find a series of squares separated by coloured cord, each containing a small piece of wedding cake donated by a happy couple. Ensconced under glass, an 1887 sample is presented alongside some of its accompanying leaf and berry decorations. Other couples have donated silver leaves, flowers, and yellowed fragments of icing.

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The placement of this natural ‘social’ history next to entomological and other specimens is a wonderful surprise to the visitor. It is a neat illustration, I think, of how we might preserve material fragments of social, as well as natural, histories.

Photos: David Kerekes