A03: Show understanding of the relationships between texts and contexts in which they were written.
15% of the overall Literature GCSE is assessed on this one little assessment thread. The exam board have tried to define context and their idea is that it takes students outside the text. Context can refer to location, social structures and features, cultural contexts and periods of time. They have also simplified it the marking scheme to be ‘ideas/perspectives/contextual factors’. So, our students need to be aware of the context of ‘A Christmas Carol’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘An Inspector Calls’ and ‘Power and Conflict poetry’. But, how do you make the contextual knowledge meaningful and appropriate in the long run?
We have taught all the key texts. We now have next term and a bit of the remaining term to get our Year 11s ready for the exams. Part of our revision plan next term is to make a booklet for students. Each lesson and each week will focus on different parts of necessary knowledge for the exams. It will include vocabulary, key quotes, terminology, genre features and contextual points. The idea is that we test and retest these bits of information again and again so we can commit to memory important information. Of course, you could say everything is important when studying a text, but for your average Year 11, we need to help them see what is appropriate and what isn’t appropriate when referring to the texts.
Every English teacher has had to plough through an historical information dump in an essay. Facts have been lifted and copied virtually word for word by the student. In fact, contextual information and facts are so tricky. One slight and insignificant piece of information warps a student’s understanding. Mention in passing that Shakespeare might have been a Catholic sympathiser in an odd lesson and you can guarantee that a student will find everything as a clue to Shakespeare being Catholic. He uses this word because he is Catholic. He includes a female character in this scene because he is Catholic. He sets it in this country because he is Catholic. Students shape texts to fit a contextual fact, rather than link texts to the context and explain them.
When I teach context, I do the usual stuff of read articles and other texts related to the historical context, but I tend to boil things down. Below is an example:
An Inspector Calls: Context
Edwardian – Setting of the play- 1912
· Britain was seen as a very rich and prosperous nation.
· Society insisted the rich and poor should not mix. Marrying or befriending a person of a different class would be a scandal.
· Britain was clearly a class based society. The rich and the poor had their place and they couldn’t move.
· The rich had more rights in society than the poor. The poor could be cruel to the poor and society accepted it.
· Women couldn’t vote so the suffragette movement was started.
1945 – Play written and performed
· Britain had just experienced two world wars and was optimistic about the future
· During the wars, rich and poor people fought together a common enemy.
· Women played an important part during the war effort. Many had jobs or responsibility.
· Many women lost their husbands due to the wars so there were some families without a male figure at the head of the house.
· Rationing and two wars had left Britain quite poor. The rich were not as rich as they were before.
· Women could vote.
I keep these points on a PowerPoint ready for use in lessons. At any given point, I might refer to these when reading a text. We’ve just read Act 1 so which on these points is most relevant here. How does the writer reflect this idea that women couldn’t vote? Where do we see it? Then, continue reading.
The contextual information is intertwined with the reading. The two are inseparable. Some contextual information might be important to know before reading. Other points might be relevant as and when events occur in the text. But, all the time, there should be a ping-ponging of context and reading. I watched a student teacher start of reading of ‘Lord of the Flies’ with a discussion of William Golding’s life. He said: ‘How do you think that would affect his writing? What sorts of story would he write?’ I recently listened to BBC radio documentary and I gleamed an interesting contextual point. Charles Dickens, at the time of planning ‘A Christmas Carol’, his family were asking to borrow money from him. Often they didn’t pay him back. He felt they were a drain.
Students dump contextual information in their writing when we have separated in their minds. For years, I have always had the ‘An Inspector Calls’ context lesson. I showed students the BBC video and asked them to answer questions based on the video. In the last three years, I have started with the above list and asked students to memorise and then link to the text. I might pick one point and the get students to look at the text from that angle. I underline a key word so that they memorise that key word or phrase. Hopefully, when they remember the word ‘vote’ in the exam that will trigger the relevant information.
But teaching context can be a simple case of sentence structure. This year I have started using these sentences in writing:
Elizabethans felt ….
Some Elizabethans thought…
Men, at that time, saw….
Women, at that time, were viewed as
It was expected that …
It was generally accepted that..
It was common to see …
It was an unwritten rule …
Society, at the time, expected ….
The great thing about using phrases like the above is that you start to make concrete the people of the time. A fact can be pretty inhuman. A belief. A notion. An ideology of the time is something more sophisticated and relatable. Take sexuality in the Elizabethan age. It is as complex as it is now. Elizabethans felt what towards sexuality. Repressed? Puritanical? Open? Heterosexual? Read a few sonnets see all those ideas are confirmed in part, because, just like today, some people think one thing and others think something else.
The other thing to think about with context is relationships. At the heart of all texts is the relationship between people. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is about the relationship between the young and the old and between different groups of society. ‘An Inspector Calls’ is about the relationship between the young and the old and between the rich and the poor. ‘A Christmas Carol’ is about the relationships between the rich and the poor and the young and the old. Of course, there are so many more subtle or obvious relationships. What about the healthy and the ill in ‘A Christmas Carol’? Or, the confident and the shy in ‘An Inspector Calls’? Understand the relationships and you understand the context better. If you understand that the old controlled the young in Elizabethan society, you understand why Juliet’s actions are so important.
Contextual understanding could be just a word. I recently read a book about the Elizabethan age and one word stood out from the rest. Insecurity. The Elizabethan Age was a time of insecurity. Now, where do we see that insecurity in ‘Romeo and Juliet’? The unsettled nature of time is duplicated in every scene. Things could change at any minute. In fact, the whole play is constantly changing. In fact, you could relate all the plays of Shakespeare to this insecurity. They all end with a sense of security at the end. Normality is established by the end of ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Macbeth’. Okay, probably a bit tenuous. However, having one word is powerful enough to develop an interpretation of the play’s context. The Prince is trying to make things stable. The struggles. In the end, people die and this causes stability.
Right, to the crux of this blog: I am writing this blog to see what people think are the most important contextual facts necessary for students to understand and develop effective interpretations of the texts. I have included a bit of mine below. I am going to include a page or two for each text in the revision book, but I am really interested to see what you think is important. So, please create your own list or add points in the comments below.
Thanks for reading,
Romeo and Juliet: Context
• Women had to rely on their husbands and fathers – they belonged to them. They were their property – to do as they wish
• They couldn’t own property.
• Queen Elizabeth did not marry as this would mean her husband had power over her.
• A woman could not vote. They had no legal rights and did not have a chance of being educated.
• The only career a woman had in society was marriage, which was organised by the father.
• A marriage wasn’t based on love and attraction but on financial security. A marriage helped men get money through a dowry or built alliances between families.
• Women could marry from the age of 12. Common in rich families.
A Christmas Carol: Context
London and the Poor
• The poor often had lots of children as it was expected a few wouldn’t reach adulthood.
• There was a lot of migration from the countryside because of an economic depression. This caused heavy crowding in the cities.
• Overcrowding meant continuous diseases – typhus, diphtheria, scurvy, small pox, cholera
• Life expectancy in London was only 27 years.
• Everywhere in London there was evidence of physical diseases – small pox, malnutrition, etc.
• Children were constantly dying. Half the registered deaths were children.