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An introduction to English Literature: initial thoughts.

Next year, Year 12 begin the first straight-through teaching of English Literature at A level. The unnecessary hiatus of AS has been lifted and we may have a bit more time to explore the subject.

My intention is to try to engage with ‘Literature’ per se and to lose the sense of set-book-focus which I feel has made A level hitherto so much the poor relation of IBDP studies. Our students are not in the Upper Sixth as an end in itself – they are preparing for University. Some will opt to study Literature – let’s prepare them.

Anyway, here is the first version of my ‘welcome to Literature’ lessons.  The project will be filled out but the outline is here. I welcome comment and am grateful for the stimulus provided by Andrew Green of Brunel University, who pointed me to Daniel Pannac.

So, you chose Literature

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USA Literature: Arts in context. What can we gather from music?

As I begin to prepare for teaching American Literature for OCR A level next year, I want to explore the music which parallels our study. Art is holistic. To study literature without an awareness of music and fine art, for example, would be unhelpful.

I’m not sure how best to arrange this.  I will write a summary of what i see as useful and post a link to a Spotify playlist where examples can be found.  I hope this will be interesting and useful.

Beginnings and Puritans.

Before the arrival of Europeans on the East coast, there was music. Much has become extinct, but the Native Americans had a music, largely based on rhythmic drumming which was repressed as they were systematically chased away from the new ‘civilised’ inhabitants of the New World.

These were the religious escapees from Europe and the Empire builders. Their music and their literature was largely religious and reflected the stern puritan outlook of many. In the 17th Century, music was given to the Lord and not intended for relaxation and revel – unless one was not of the Chosen People. Sure, on board ship there were shanties and popular songs; soldiers marched to rhythmic folk ditties, but these were generally not regarded as men of class or men who had any form of soul worth redeeming.  Each European group brought its own version of the music of North or South Europe and church music, as exemplified by the Bay Psalm Book of the First New England School grew up. Composers were often self-taught and their music gradually deviated from the European norm as a result. Composers such as the splendidly named, Supply Belcher, were the first authentic voices of American music.


As the 18th century saw northern Europe dominate the development of New England and East Coast culture, so the voice of Catholic South was domination development of music in states to the West of the continent. The one an austere church music based often on Scottish Presbyterian models with ‘lining’ of simple melody a feature, the other, the rich polyphony of Spanish renaissance music.

And then there were the slaves.  Drawn from the vast array of races and cultures of West Africa, they brought no single influence, though once settled, there grew up a culture based again on the religious influence – the spiritual. As the influence of Christianity became rooted in the slave society, so the expression of sorrow, pain and patience under suffering began to pour out in musical form.  A form which would eventually mutate into the blues and thence to rock and roll. In essence a true American art form.

19th Century – civil war and emancipation.

The great change to society came in the 1860s. Until,this point American society was disparate. The war forced societies to merge. The great armies brought together soldiers from the whole of the continent and the boundaries between communities developing much along the lines of the historical ethnic forebears was changed for ever. This cultural shift was helped by the emancipated slaves, whose music could now become an influence beyond the South and also to a startling rise in urbanisation following the victory of the industrial North over the Agrarian economies of the South. In or around 1890, fewer than 1 in 4 citizens lived in urban areas. By the 1920s, more than half the population lived in the great cities.

The elite in the cities of the East coast had long established themselves as facsimiles of their European cousins – Philharmonic societies and Opera companies were founded and music performed – almost entirely European music. The closest thing to an Amercian symphony at this period was Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony written in 1893. It is so called because it was written in America. The only evident Americanism is his use of ‘negro’ melodies. There wanted yet an American voice.  The musical directors of these companies were Europeans –   Mahler or Toscanini for example in New York.  Students of literature might compare this idea in a writer such as Kate Chopin. In her novel The Awakening, there is competition between the creole folk song – simple and alluring, the trite Europeanism of French Operetta and the emotionally explosive high Romanticism of Chopin and Wagner.  Her novel is sert in the melting pot of New Orleans. The salons of Boston, where Henry James’ heroines reside was appalled and disgusted by the impression created.  Class was European, not American. Music and Literature agreed.

So what of the non-elite?

The war brought an upsurge in Military music and in the ballad form of popular song. The music of the ‘blackface’ popular song, of composers such as Stephen Foster became subsumed into the musical lexicon of the warring factions – as did the hymns of the European tradition. The ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ the anthem of the Union being based on the hymn John Brown’s body…’. Whilst the rousing tunes and military tread of John Philip Sousa engaged the minds of the victorious North European society of the great East Coast Urban elites., the south – the land of Dixie continued to reflect music more redolent of a mixture of cultures -Creole, Slave, and French in particular and also that of another authentic voice – the hillbilly – the lowest stratum of society, the rural poor, carving out a living in the Appalachians and other areas of the Southern States. These areas were still dominated by country music – the folk song tradition of the settlers.

At this point there is a necessary divergence:

Post war: Urban

In cities like New York, music flourished. By the early 20th century the growth of an audience for the Musical launched many a career, at the same time as the explosion in recording technology and simple publication of sheet music. Apart form the great European music widely available in the concert hall, the 3 minute song became the currency of popular music. As the ‘Jazz Age’ approached, access to music had never been simpler. The arrival of emancipation  had allowed black culture to spread rapidly. The blues, derived from spirituals had evolved into Jazz in cities like New Orleans, in the South. This in turn became blended with popular culture and hit songs like ‘Ol’ Man River’ from the musical; Show Boat blended the former slave culture with the new popular music of the North. Among the librettists on Show Boat was none other than P’G’ Wodehouse who joined composer Jerome Kern in the great hit number ‘Bill’. Boundaries were falling.  The composer who best encapsulates this era is George Gershwin. He travelled from popular song, via works for full symphony orchestra to his opera Porgy and Bess (1934). This is a true landmark of American culture – An opera in the vernacular, written about life in the poor black community, with a heart-lifting message, which does not shy away from issues such as drugs and racist bullying and which requires a black cast. It has not been universally popular -many black actors have refused to play roles which they feel perpetuate negative stereotypes – drug peddlers, prostitutes and so on, but it is a vital step in the development of an American Classical Music canon – the mixture of ragtime, keening, blues, and great romantic arias is a first fusion of the rich tapestry of music available in the America at this time.

Rural South and the birth of Jazz.

In new Orleans at the end of the 19th century the melting pot, as suggested earlier, was beginning to develop another authentic voice of American music: Jazz. This is a form associated with the black community and originates in processional and marching music based on the songs and spirituals which has typified the community hitherto.  The new feature of Jazz, over the dance-oriented forms of ragtime which represented ‘black’ music to this time, was improvisation – the free voice taking a theme and owning it – a true sense of self-expression. Ragtime, typified by composers such as Scot Joplin, the first musician from the black community to become a household name, was ubiquitous in the dance halls and bars of the country. Jazz would become the voice of the South and the voice of a race.

Jazz Age.

I’m sure every student reading Gatsby will have been asked to research the Jazz Age. What a time. Just as Gatsby’s mansion is filled with the flotsam and jetsam of an immigrant society, so music was beginning to fill its various voices. Ragtime develops into dance crazes such as the Charleston and Jazz is tamed to develop into the phenomenon which will mark the 1940s – Swing.  Improvisation is still a part of the process, but the whole is tightened and organised to best fill the three minute needs of a 78RPM  disc and to provide comfort food for the masses and in time to spread the American image overseas. Jazz would need to wait for the next artistic explosion – the be-bop experimentation of the 1950s and 60s – the erosion of rules and rejection of form that can be seen in poetry of the time and the beginnings of utterly abstract art movements.  In Gatsby, the music is ‘there’, not central, yet it is such a clear symbol of a shift in society. It is now post world war 1, the societal boundaries are breaking, a musical form which encompasses all is developing, yet it is a sanitised form of the genre – not the scream of freedom and self expression of New Orleans, but the tamer ‘danced Jazz’ of the northern cities.

In parallel change had come upon the European Classical tradition in the form of Charles Ives (1874-1954). No composer can be as worthy of consideration as the authentic voice of American Classical music even if his experimentation renders much of his music ‘difficult’ even today. He takes the sound effects of composers such as Mahler or Richard Strauss – particularly the use of ‘noises off’ and offers a specifically American take. Mahler may embed the cowbells of his Austrian heritage in his symphonies, Ives runs recognisably American marching bands straight into each other whilst establishing a musical narrative in the forefront of the hall – about as wild a rule breaking as Whitman or Eliot or other voices of modernism found in literature. The effect is disconcerting to say the least.

After Ives, Aaron Copland is probably the next voice to create a distinctively American sound. His ballet Appalachian Spring taps into an artistic movement which was seeking to link back to tradition and the ‘old ways’ in the aftermath of the War, much as the Georgian movement in Edwardian England had done. He makes dance heroes of figures of the American West in the ballets Rodeo and Billy the Kid and creates an instantly recognisably ‘American sound’ with spacious chords, slow moving often recalling the huge spaces of the country, mixed with popular folk song and religious melody recalling a more innocent time.

The European tradition continued to flourish – though not widely performed in Europe, composers such as Walter Piston and Howard Hanson followed the lead of the late 19th century 2nd New England School, writing in a highly Romantic language. There was also the influence, again, of immigrants. It is hard to decide whether composers like Stravinsky, Rachmaninov or Schoenberg can be said to be ‘American’. They are great composers resident in America, but it is hard to point to direct American influence on their music. Kurt Weill, on the other hand underwent a complete change of voice. Rejecting the Brechtian sparseness of his Berlin Years in favour of a directly American popular song sound exemplified in works like his opera Street Scene.

Post World War 2.

Now it gets complicated!

As the soldiers returned and American society tasted prosperity like never before, a new segregation developed in addition to the segregation of the blacks in the Jim Crow South. In turn the state turned on possible Communists, those opposed to the increasingly belligerent actions of the state in the Far East, those who seemed to be misfits due to their sexuality or their choice of relaxing stimulants and so forth. Each time this manifested itself, art responded accordingly. The blues developed into the teenage phenomenon of Rock and Roll (complete with lewd hip swivelling), and that in turn into the huge range of sub genres that we see today. Society was fragmenting and each fragment carried its own bubble of musical stimulus. The urban jazz world explored be-bop as an antidote to swing in the same way as the Beat poets rebelled against the strict notion of form applied to earlier poems. Writers like Bob Dylan recalled the folk music of earlier times in his largely acoustic writing of protest songs around the time of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, only joining mainstream music in 1966 with the use of electronic instruments and amplification. In the late 60s the psychedelic drug culture reached its apogee at the great Woodstock festival – free love and drugs were on the bill in New England, as well as in San Francisco – long seen as a somewhat louche city. In the classical sphere, minimalism, led by Steve Reich and Philip Glass reflected the minimalist movement in art, and a new type of Classical music was born after the war: the Film Score.

In this field, there had always been music – pianos accompanied the silent movies of the early 20th century and artists such as Charlie Chaplin not only acted but also composed his own soundtracks.  After the war, filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock altered the medium forever. In a Hitchcock film, the music is a character – the shrieking violins in psycho or the pounding orchestral pursuit in North by North West. Pre-war composers such as Eric Korngold and newer voices such as Bernard Herman rose to prominence. By the 1980s composers were stars in their own right: John Williams is probably the finest example of the group, though Elmer Bernstein and Ron Goodwin or James Horner also stand out.

Unlike in the UK where serious composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton and Malcolm Arnold were heard both on screen and in the concert hall, few Americans seem to have done the same. The notable exception is the remarkable Leonard Bernstein.  Composer, conductor, educator…

The post war American city was a divided place-  increasingly a divided society was withdrawing into small sections of closely guarded territory. Bernstein caught this shift like no other. His musical West Side Story merges Shakespeare with the Upper West Side of Manhattan – the gangs are now American boys and their Puerto Rican neighbours. This musical exploded onto Broadway in 1957 and caused a wave of shock and adulation. Gone was the safe ‘American musical’ in which love was chased in the strange worlds of South Pacific or sanitised Nazis. Bernstein probably has marked American Classical Music forever in this work – part Jazz, part twee glee song (the satirical Officer Krupke), part full blown Romantic Opera, this work encapsulates the divisions of the society it portrays whilst merging the Latin sounds of the Puerto Ricans with the European and ‘American’ musical language  of the Jets. A true American masterpiece for the masses.

Enough. This has strayed form my original idea – there is not enough direct Literary linking – I may have to come back to it.

The Spotify soundtrack can be found USA playlist

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Still I rise, Significant Cigarettes, Dyslexia… Anthology Part 2

My former colleague Michael Mellor left this wonderful teaching outline for the Edexcel IGCSE new anthology….

I like it…

very much indeed.  Thanks Michael.

NEW IGCSE Lang_2016_Angelou_Tremain_BenZeph


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Practice Questions OCR A level

In the absence of past papers and having exhausted my imagination and the titles I can cull from OCR training material, I offer these for the Pre 1900 poetry and drama paper:

1 ‘Seduction is most effectively accomplished through flattery.’

In the light of this view, consider ways in which writers represent seduction. In your answer,

compare one drama text and one poetry text from the above lists. [30]

2 ‘It is rarely good for us to get what we want.’

In the light of this view, consider ways in which writers portray appetites and desires, and theirconsequences. In your answer, compare one drama text and one poetry text from the above lists.

3 ‘Marriage can be a prison, marriage can be a paradise’

In the light of this view, consider ways in which writers portray marriage. In your answer, compare one drama text and one poetry text from the above lists.

4 ‘Literature rarely shows power being used well’.

In the light of this view, consider ways in which writers portray marriage. In your answer, compare one drama text and one poetry text from the above lists.

5 ‘Verbal wit is women’s strongest weapon’

In the light of this view, consider ways in which writers portray women’s use of language. In your answer, compare one drama text and one poetry text from the above lists.

6 ‘Life goes on but literary texts must end’

In the light of this view, consider ways in which writers end their texts. In your answer, compare one drama text and one poetry text from the above lists.

7 ‘Pride goes before a fall: the greater the pride, the greater the fall’.

In the light of this view, consider ways in which writers portray pride. In your answer, compare one drama text and one poetry text from the above lists.

8 ‘Writers, readers and audiences delight in the spectacle of sinfulness’.

In the light of this view, consider ways in which writers portray sinfulness. In your answer, compare one drama text and one poetry text from the above lists.

And this was posted recently by Anton Viesel – a teacher in Northampton:

OCR A Level Paper 1 Section 2 questions Continue reading

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Jerusalem: the Play by Jez Butterworth

Interesting stimulus for a much under-resourced play. Yr12 – read this.

Beyond the Zeitgeist

Do we  believe that Johnny “Rooster” Byron is having sex with Phaedra, the 15-year-old girl he’s sheltering from the stepfather who has apparently been sexually abusing her? And, if we do, how come we don’t think Johnny’s abusing her, too? Or do we?

These questions go to the heart of what makes this play so interesting and disturbing—and the answer is only partly that Mark Rylance embodies Johnny as such a vivid life force that we might almost forgive him anything.

The tenderness of Johnny’s third-act scene with Phaedra certainly suggests a relationship. She brings down the curtain on the second act when she suddenly emerges from his trailer in the woods and calls his name. When she emerges again in Act 3 to find Johnny alone among the dilapidated furniture scattered in the yard out front, she recounts the thrill of being crowned queen of the annual fair on…

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AS English Literature Unseen Prose (OCR)

new doc 2017-05-04 10.54.05_1

My notes for approaching the Unseen question in AS examinations. This based on the Dystopia cluster: 1984 and was a revision exercise.

Approaching the AS unseen question

H072_02_exemplars 2016 summer


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A passage to Africa: notes on Explain Everything

Recently we got new laptops at work… woop!

I have been experimenting with Explain Everything – a piece of software which I had previously only encountered in an iPad form.  It’s great and allows you to annotate and record a class discussion in real time…

Year 9 (!) discuss Alagiah’s Passage to Africa from the Edexcel IGCSE anthology…

It can also be found here:

Explain files need to be downloaded – I am working on an MP4 version. The Explain Everything App is free at first with a subscription after a month – well worth the payment.

I hope the link works – it is work-in-progress and my writing with the stylus on screen will only get better!




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Mayella and Boo: Thoughts

Mayella and Boo: Class notes

After a discussion in y11 around an essay which asked for ‘children who suffer’ in the novel to be compared, we developed this list. I suggest that students find evidence to support these statements and to extend them.

Mayella Boo
Single parent family Single parent family
Abusive father (sexually) Abusive father (neglect)
Uneducated (choice of family) Uneducated beyond a teen years (father)
Mother figure to siblings No siblings but seems to wish to care for the children
Coward in the trial (moral) Brave at end (physical)
Tries to improve life for children: geraniums Gifts in the tree
Bigoted –picked up from father  
Appalling living conditions clearly described Home likened to Gothic haunted house.


I think that the key to this essay might be to look at how the children cope with their ‘suffering’ – in this case Boo rises above it and does what is right, yet Mayella could be said to lack that moral compass. Setting is relevant as well and students might wish to consider the difference between the Radley house which has the best view of all the events in the novel against the house on the dump.


There is much more to find, but this is a start….

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Jamie Zeppa: Bhutan for IGCSE

A powerpoint, based on the Edexcel IGCSE materials to assist with teaching and revision of ‘Beyond the sky and the earth: a journey into Bhutan.


Zeppa Tasks for class



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On scaffolded descriptive writing openings

This is a great post by a colleague on Twitter: Thanks Rebecca.
I post it for my Yr 10s and 11s as they approach exams and exam prep – the ability comment is not an issue for me – this applies ot all who need to boost their creative writing marks… give it a try.

The Learning Profession

bournemouth beach

My low attaining year 10 class (average aspirational target of a grade 3) have been struggling with descriptive writing. I have provided some structure (e.g. using zoom boxes to focus in on areas of the image) and we’ve explored what makes good descriptive writing, with lots of modelling and practise, but, invariably, students in this group have found it difficult to move from writing with ‘some success’ to producing writing that is ‘consistent and clear’. In timed conditions, they have been struggling to get started and some have barely managed a couple of paragraphs in the time allowed.

I’ve been reading a lot recently about cognitive load theory and I’ve come to the conclusion that, for these students, the cognitive load in our descriptive writing lessons has been excessive and therefore their learning has suffered. They’ve been battling a plethora of demands: starting effectively; structuring sentences accurately; using paragraphs; using a range…

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