Recently we hosted an American Literature Day for students from our school and a local school. We had around 50 Year 11s engrossed for a whole day in a range of activities designed to wet their appetites for A level study of English Literature and /or History.
Here is our collection of materials, from me, Maria Trafford (who organised the whole thing, Bethan Davies and Jonathan Pepperman. A group of our current Lower 6th boys presented in the afternoon and covered a broad spectrum from the influences of Jazz on literature to exploration of the American Dream.
It was an exciting day for all concerned: as teachers we rarely get the chance ot talk about our passions with no ulterior motive attached.
One of the delegates, from Burnham Grammar wrote this appreciation of the day:
…It’s not the first thing you think of when someone says English literature is it? Well it wasn’t until I found myself in the pristine rooms of John Lyon listening to American History explained through major literature. Of course, the John Lyon teachers took us brilliantly though the American Constitution, but did you know that all through the Civil war and the American divide, authors were taking inspiration from real life to portray society and the American Dream?
To most, the dream that you can build yourself up from nothing, if you’re willing to work hard, is an appealing idea. This idea is the basis behind the American dream and it promotes freedom, ambition and equality, so why wouldn’t it work? Well, look into the classic works of American Literature and you can find symbolism of hardships, struggle, collapse of a dream, and the idea of hope, and where it will always get you. Take The Great Gatsby for example, a novel that not only presents these themes but also mirrors the change in American culture and attitudes through the ‘Roaring Twenties’.
Delve deeper into works of famous American authors and you find allegories depicting the role of women; the effect of prohibition; losing hope and even works that, when interpreted in different ways, hold parallels to key events in American History…and it’s all easier to understand than Shakespeare!
To Kill a Mockingbird, Little Women, The Awakening, Of Mice and Men, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Invisible Man and so many more. There are so many classic works of literature that not only tell captivating and shocking stories, but also give insight into what state America was in at the time. Yes, you can use geology to find out the history of a place, but you can also discover the divide in opinion, the prospects for the future, and the struggle of the people of that time through literature. These works can give insight into consequences in the future, help see why history shaped out as it did…and give you a really interesting A Level essay to write which is, let’s be honest, a big positive when you have to write lots of essays.
At John Lyon, I learnt masses about the impact and inspiration of American literature. I found the experience very educational, shown as I knew little of what I have written above before attending the event. I found myself immersed in the story of a place outside where I live, saw WWI from another perspective. No more Henry VIII, no more king and queens. I was given a new story to read, a story with adventure and mystery, but most importantly, I was taught about a story that shows a place most unlike the one I thought I knew.
I was presented with a story at John Lyon and there’s nothing like curiosity to entice you into a new book. And I can say right now that I want to read it.
Written by Ananya Year 11 BGS. What a great piece of writing.
I have been putting together an introduction to Butterworth’s play. This is my draft complete copy. It is definitely work in progress, but I welcome feedback.
The play appears on the OCR set text list for AS and can be used, therefore for the coursework element at A level, yet there is no published material on the play and OCR have not produced one of their useful guides to give us a hint at what areas of a splendidly rich text they will be focused upon.
I hope some who read this will get in touch with suggestions and corrections… I am still working on it as you can see.
A list of essay titles for revision purposes. Whilst these are not really intended to follow the OCR outlines, I think that the ground covered in a sensible planning of each will leave little to chance…
‘What the fuck do you think an English forest is for?’ Explore the depiction of England as part of a pastoral narrative.
Ginger needs Johnny, but Johnny also needs Ginger: Discuss
Explore the depiction of youth as shown in the characters Davey and Lee.
To what extent do you view Troy Whitworth to be the ‘villain’ of the play?
‘A fairy tale for the 21st Century’. To what extent do you agree with this idea of the play?
Explore the role of music in the play
From Blake to Gog and Magog. What is the role of Heritage in this play?
The audience should pity Johnny. Do you agree?
The audience should feel sympathy for Fawcett. Do you agree?
Phaedra is as much a victim as Johnny is. To what extent do you agree with this view?
Jerusalem is play which never loses its relevance. Do you think this is a fair comment?
How is violence used in this play?
Consider the theme of friendship in this play.
Johnny is little more than a scallywag, he should not frighten us. To what extent do you find this to be a fair comment on the play?
Choose two minor characters and explore the dramatic function of these characters in the play.
Once again, an essay for discussion. There is no such thing as a perfect unseen, especially in 45 minutes! A sound file and discussion is below.
The Chrysalids (1955)
The passage, written by a first person narrator, and therefore fundamentally unreliable in terms of the implications of such a narrative voice, is set in a world which seems to be lacking in advanced technology and in which there is a underlying threat of a society in which even thought can be intercepted and studied.
The opening description of the dream world is one of beauty and freedom. Although set in a city ‘clustered’ around the ‘big blue bay’, the freedom of the alliterative description of the bay counteracts the tight structure of the city. Indeed the verb ‘clustered’ could suggest a city which is deliberately gathered together precisely because of the opportunity offered by the bay itself. The sea is often used to symbolise the possibility of freedom and escape, being a liminal marker that is both obstructive and crossable. A similar idea is explored in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go when the clones visit Cromer or Dover and recognise that there is a life beyond the one set out for them, if they might cross it. In this extract, the dream scenario is countered by the recognition that the real world is landlocked – the narrator has never ‘seen the sea, or a boat…’ The ellipsis suggests a thought process cut off in mid-stream as though too upsetting to pursue.
In the dream world the innocent mind from the future sees vehicles redolent of the time of writing – ‘carts running with no horses and fish-shaped things in the sky’. Again his wonder at ordinary 20th century sights suggests a world which has regressed in time, somewhat as England has in Riddley Walker, by Russel Hoban. This similarity is enhanced by the mention of the ‘Tribulation’ wrought by God – not necessarily a Christian God – which possibly relates to some form of Nuclear disaster, a very common fear in the 1950s when this book was written. A world devastated by an unexpressed apocalyptic event is a common Dystopian trope of the later 20th century.
The narrator dreams this view both by day and night – the night is not threatening – the light lying like ‘strings of glow-worms’ suggests a peace and beauty to the scene. One in which man and nature seem to happily coincide.
The narrator is young, though has developed beyond his innocent days – ‘when I was quite small’. He is able to refer to a time ‘when I was still young enough to know no better’ and to the need to ask an older sibling for advice. There are no parents in this narrative. He is aware enough to see the dream as ‘beautiful and fascinating’ but also readily aware that as he gets older and his state of innocence drops away, his visions also fall away at the same time. This path from innocence to experience with a similar reduction of freedom and thought is reminiscent of the children in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights Trilogy, who gradually lose their freedom to adapt as their Daemons become fixed. His sister Mary seems to be knowledgeable and understanding although worried – she warns him ‘seriously’, the adverb intensifying the nature of the warning, and refers to a ‘time before’ when the Old People – the capitalisation suggesting a proper noun – a term used of the ancestors as though as part of a folk memory – a very common trope seen in Zamyatin’s We or Orwell’s 1984. She also establishes how unusual he is in having these ‘pictures’ in his head and establishing him as an outsider – a typical narrator in such novels. His cousin Rosalind, however seems to share the gift of sight. He and she have a ‘curious understanding’, possibly hinting at a psychic link of some sort which is no doubt explored in the novel. The name Rosalind is chosen to echo Shakespeare’s Rosalind in As You Like It – a girl of great resource and an outcast who will find love and understanding when banished to the forest. Possibly this storyline will be followed.
There is also an unsettling comment in that the narrator is already marked out for observation due to his left handedness. This ‘sinister’ aspect to his character will no doubt be explored in the novel.
The narrator realises the need for silence and his prepared to bide his time. We are told that he and Rosalind keep quiet about their gift ‘at that time’. Clearly the passage is from the beginning of the novel and much is being set up for future reference. He ‘did not feel unusual’ he says, possibly suggesting that his older self certainly does.
The passage explores the ideas of a ruined world and establishes the idea of a young man who has visions – not unlike the Father in Mcarthy’s The Road, – of a better past. He is fascinated, just as Riddley Walker is by these manifestations of a time before and establishes a hook in the relationship between him and his equally different cousin.
Write a commentary on this passage from a novel published in 1955. Relate your response to the study of Dystopian literature. Time: 1 hour.
When I was quite small I would sometimes dream of a city – which was strange because it began before I even knew what a city was. But this city, clustered on the curve of a big blue bay, would come into my mind. I could see the streets, and the buildings that lined them, the waterfront, even boats in the harbour; yet, waking, I had never seen the sea, or a boat . . .
And the buildings were quite unlike any I knew. The traffic in the streets was strange, carts running with no horses to pull them; and sometimes there were things in the sky, shiny fish-shaped things that certainly were not birds.
Most often I would see this wonderful place by daylight, but occasionally it was by night when the light lay like strings of glow-worms along the shore, and a few of them seemed to be sparks drifting on the water, or in the air.
It was a beautiful, fascinating place, and once, when I was still young enough to know no better, I asked my eldest sister, Mary, where this lovely city could be.
She shook her head, and told me there was no such place – not now. But, perhaps, she suggested, I could somehow be dreaming about times long ago. Dreams were funny things, and there was no accounting for them; so it might be that what I was seeing was a bit of the world as it had been once upon a time – the wonderful world that the Old People had lived in; as it had been before God sent Tribulation.
But after that she went on to warn me very seriously not to mention it to anyone else; other people as far as she knew, did not have such pictures in their heads, either sleeping or waking, so it would be unwise to mention them.
That was good advice, and luckily I had the sense to take it. People in our district had a very sharp eye for the odd, the unusual, so that even my left-handedness caused slight disapproval. So, at that time, and for some years afterwards, I did not mention it to anyone – indeed, I almost forgot about it, for as I grew older, the dream came less frequently, and then very rarely.
But the advice stuck. Without it I might have mentioned the curious understanding I had with my cousin Rosalind, and that would certainly have led us both into very grave trouble – if anyone had happened to believe me. Neither I nor she, I think, paid much attention to it at that time: we simply had the habit of caution. I certainly did not feel unusual. I was a normal little boy, growing up in a normal way, taking the ways of the world about me for granted.
This is my draft material for an enrichment day on American Literature. we try to offer this day each year – in the past it has been on Dystopia and this year the wonderful Maria Trafford is organising the day around American Literature for OCR.
This means we can invite boys with an eye to English Literature and to History and for the first time will have a context session led by one of the History team, Jonathan Pepperman, who will be taking time off from being a Deputy Head… Thank you, JOP.
My session is looking at contexts and intertextuality – obviously a broad brush approach as a taster. My source material is Kate Chopin – so many students treat Race as an issue of the 1960s…
We welcome students from local schools (mocks allowing) and the day is a highly engaging introduction to the approach required at A level.
I have just been marking Y11 practice essays on Mockingbird relating to the characters of Calpurnia and Tom. Given the stem: ‘how are the characters…. presented?’ the focus is clearly on Lee’s technique but also on her intention in creating these two characters. Students need to ask themselves what the function is of any character in a question such as this and then address the ways in which the author brings out that function in the writing.
Both are black and in a book focused on the racial divide of the deep south, this is an obvious point to make. More than this , both are ‘good’ and therefore can be seen not only as ‘Mockingbirds’ but also as the antithesis of the ‘white trash’ defined by the Ewell family. This is important since Lee is at pains to point out that there is inherent worth in Tom which cannot be seen at all in Bob, though Bob, being white, will receive the benefit of the bias of the jury.
Thus both symbolise an essential concept of goodness. Both are also part of Scout’s education though in different ways. Calpurnia, from before the start of the text is an active teacher whose role is criticised by society in the shape of Miss Caroline; Tom is himself a lesson – he never meets Scout, but is as much a part of her education as anything undertaken by Calpurnia or Atticus.
An intelligent and hard working black woman employed to replace Atticus’ wife in the Finch household. It is clear from the early stages of the narrative that Scout is utterly indebted to Calpurnia for her education and her burgeoning awareness of the world around her. Cal is not the only surrogate mother – Maudie and Alexandra must also be considered in this light, but Lee uses her for clear social education -whether when teaching Scout not to disrespect Walter or when taking the children to her church and responding to Lula’s verbal aggression.
It is Cal to whom the children turn when upset and it is Cal who will be chosen by Atticus to accompany him to call on Helen following Tom’s death. She has the feminine virtue of compassion and empathy in a way that Atticus does not. This is not to say that she is a ‘soft touch’ -Jem’s comments about the strength of her hand in a beating make that eminently clear.
Towards the end of the novel Calpurnia is presented in two scenes: Alexandra wishes to be rid of her and Atticus is clear -he can’t live without her. This is not a romantic attachment, but one of support and mutual respect. Look again at the little scene in which she enters the body of the courthouse to tell Atticus that his children are missing – she bears herself with dignity in the lair of the white folks and carries out one of her last duties in regards to the children. After this in the novel she will wait and serve at the tea party and help to comfort Helen, but her role as educator in chief is no longer relevant. In Part 1 she seems to be Atticus’ accomplice in educating the children. By the middle of part 2 she is replaced by circumstance and by Tom.
Although mentioned in Part 1, Tom plays no part in the text until part 2 – as though Part 1 has been preparation for the key idea: the black man, however poor, is not to be written off because of the colour of his skin. His trial takes up around a quarter of the text and is without doubt the central event of the whole text. In it Tom is set against Bob Ewell and the pair are held up to scrutiny. Tom is as much portrayed by his own deeds and speech as he is by Bob’s: the one is the antithesis of the other. Where Tom is quiet, respectful and unwilling to use Bob’s own words in his evidence because they are too uncouth. Bob, on the other hand, is brash, disrespectful and boorish. Lee uses the trial to give the reader a detailed description of the Ewell home which will later be contrasted with the homes of the black community. Both are near the tip but Bob’s is virtually on it – there are no windows and a fence made of savage-looking ruined tools. The only touch of softness is the attempt by Mayella to grow geraniums in a poor copy of Maudie’s garden in the centre of town. The Black community dwellings are, in contrast, cosy and carry the scent of cooking to the visitors, despite their poverty.
This is the key: despite poverty, at the middle of the depression, Tom finds time for dignity and honesty. This is seen time and again in the court house and also in the fact that he is employed at all, and a good worker. Not only this, he pities Mayella. Whilst this is used against him in court, it is so important – his thoughts are not for himself but for others. For this caring nature he is held up as a scapegoat by a jury of bigots. When he is killed trying to escape, he has run out of hope and his death presents the reader with a clear recognition that a terrible injustice has taken place.
His death is the last piece of Scout’s jigsaw. She sees Calpurnia being asked to provide comfort outside her family and also sees her Aunt – until this time a figure of hostility and perceived unkindness – in a different light. She too can see that it is time to grow up and to find dignity in the face of adversity.
Many will write that Tom is a ‘mockingbird’ but few refer to the jail scene. Here after the lunch ob has dispersed it is Tom’s weak voce which pierces the evening air. A frightened and vulnerable soul in a violent and cruel world.
This seminar allowed 2 students to present their recent essays for OCR AS literature. Neither are perfect representations of the AOs, but this was the first time I have tried this as a support exercise with this group.
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