Friday, 20 September 2013

More Thoughts on Junior Cycle English

I've been thinking about the JC English specifications. I did fire off one of the online forms last May, but since then have been thinking much more. Here are three ways I think they could be improved. Junior Cycle English could be simpler, with more flexibility and less box-ticking. It could be more challenging, with texts selected that offer students a decent intellectual stretch. And I'm going to add "externally assessed".  Continuing to spend millions on an exam only to mash up the results with the class teacher's assessment is a futile exercise. All the AfL and innovative pedagogy in the world won't compensate for the damage this will to the student-teacher dynamic.  And this is Ireland where until the automatic ones arrived, every door in the country had a sign saying "pull".  All of us know that in two years' time we'll have parents waiting at reception, waving print-outs of the sample answers and asking "What the FOQ do you mean he/she only Achieved with Higher Merit?"


There's a moment in Robert Redford's film "A River Runs Through It" that gets English teachers everywhere nodding their heads. It's when the home-schooled hero goes up to his father's desk and presents him with an essay. The paper is handed back to the child with the instruction to go away and take out half the words. The writers of the Specification would do well to take this advice. (Although I won't be as harsh as the Rev. McClean and suggest they discard their efforts.  Reform is badly needed and it's about time we had a discussion about what and how students learn) Too many learning outcomes can make classroom teaching an exercise in ticking off items on a checklist.  The basic things we want students to be able to do, in my opinion, are
 - write clearly and coherently in plain English.
 - unless SEN is a factor, students should leave Junior Cycle reading at an age-appropriate level.
 - comprehend the spoken word and make notes on some-one else's oral presentation
 - communicate effectively through speech
I've based these of the four aspects of language but equally the study of English is the study of language as art and language as a means of knowing the world and of influencing others.  There are instances where language as art is wholly text based but it is also valid to study how language can work with other art forms and with other media other than print and speech, such as drama, film and increasingly, digital and multimodal material. Unlike the specifications I think there always should be some aspect of language in the texts that are chosen for study. There is much to be said for developing visual literacy, but time within the English classroom is limited. I'm almost alone in saying this but I don't like spending class time analysing and decoding pictures or photographs. I say analysing here in a technical sense;  visual texts can be an invaluable starting point for creative writing. So another general learning outcome I favour would be
 - demonstrate understanding of how language can be used to create narrative and lyrical art.

There is an assumption behind the Specification that breadth is better. Text can mean anything, in any medium, in any language, or without language. We see the phrase again and again that students must study "a variety of."  The digital era means we need to choose carefully; all texts are not created equal.  There is a danger of students accessing digital media and even creating digital content, without learning anything meaningful.   In my view, enforcing learning outcomes around digital literacy is not only useless without targeted and effective CPD for teachers, it could be detrimental. There are so many resources, so many tools and so many possibilities that teachers and their classes could spend class after class apparently engaged but without learning anything that's applicable beyond the products being used. So another learning outcome with the caveat that digital and multimodal texts play an important but limited role in the classroom and, even more crucially, that training for teachers is essential.
-interact with digital media and produce work using digital tools.

More Challenging

But isn't the Specification full of challenging ideas? In the previous post I wrote about the fabulous things students will learn to do, like manipulating language, writing in different voices, and being creative with syntax. The thing is that students are often quite skilled at doing these things already, at a basic level, but very few of them are capable of genuine manipulation or creative playfulness with language. More of them could be, if they first mastered plain English.
After poetry, plain English is the hardest English of all to write. Writing succinctly and coherently is a challenge for nearly all students. I've seen first year students write poems, direct drama extracts, create digital mind-maps and take part eagerly in class discussion, yet struggle to write two paragraphs on a given, or chosen, topic. It might seem awfully nineteenth century, but we have to require students to put pen to paper and write real sentences. And I mean pen to paper, not hand to mouse. Drafting and redrafting a handwritten piece of work may seem ridiculously tedious and laborious these days but it remains the best way to develop and hone writing skills.

Literature is covered in the Specification under the heading of Critical Reading, focusing on the action of the student rather than any knowledge that can be learned. For assessment, students are required only to produce a "written personal reflection" based one significant literary text, combined (why?) with at least one shorter literary text.  I love this bit "Students may choose to pay attention to one or more of the following; beginning/ending....." Read that phrase again: "students may choose to pay attention..." I would hope that students are required to pay attention to whatever aspects of a text the teacher has chosen to focus on.  The notion of students picking which bits of the course they feel are important assumes a level of maturity and motivation that would be almost unnatural in a child of fourteen or fifteen.  It also implies that the teacher's knowledge of his or her subject, and judgement of what's of educational value, are of little importance.

But isn't the personalisation of learning an essential component of the new learning to learn? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that it is good to foster student autonomy and to give them choices where appropriate. "Personal writing"  carries the assumption of student input into the topics chosen and the approach taken. The oral presentation part of the coursework is a chance for students to research a topic of their choosing. Already we have two-thirds of the 40% largely made up of personal content. I will also say that when the subject matter is small, discrete units, students can be given the option to focus on which ones they like. For example many English teachers cover slightly more poems in Junior Cycle than are strictly needed for the exam, so students can, with the teacher's guidance, draw up their own final list.

There are instances, however, where personalisation of the curriculum is inappropriate and I'm going to say that studying a long text, like a novel or a Shakespeare play, is one of them. The parts come together to form the whole and must all be studied to the same depth.  I will add that the topics suggested - favourite characters, the ending - import the worst of the old syllabus into the new. The Studied Texts sections of the old paper are incredibly vague; they have to be as different classes study different texts.  This component of the new specification is an opportunity to assess this part of the course much more effectively by presenting students with questions and title similar to those in the Leaving Cert Single Text section.  These questions are focused on the actual text studied and tend to be much more meaningful than the vague "choose an important theme" of the current Junior Cert. 

It may be hoped that designating "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas" as a significant literary text and giving students more autonomy in what they study will re-engage students and thus, by stealth, raise standards. This is a round-about way of thinking that will not solve the problems of disengagement and poor discipline but will deny children the chance to experience literature in a classroom setting. There is much promotion of the idea of private reading, with the expectation that more able students will gravitate towards the kind of books that will stretch them intellectually. But often even the most able need the incentive of compulsion, and it is certainly true that students tend to read for pleasure at a level below the kind of books from which they can benefit with guided study. I've just started "To Kill a Mockingbird" with my second years. When I announced that's what we'd be reading this year a few of them said they'd picked it up in the library but had only managed a few pages or the first chapter. A week later, and four chapters in, they're hooked.

I'm going to stick my head out and say that all mainstream classes should be studying a Shakespeare play at Junior Cycle. Yes, there can be some serious differentiation involved but studying Shakespeare delivers like no other English activity I've ever come across. It's a stretch but one that, contrary to pessimistic belief,  does not exceed the elastic limit of the average student, or even some of their less able classmates.

Externally Assessed

Like others, I welcome the idea of students preparing a portfolio of written work as part of the assessment. In traditional exams in English candidates only get one shot. This isn't as awful as it sounds; producing meaningful written work at short notice and under pressure is a skill in itself. But it doesn't reflect how English is used most often in life. The inclusion of editing and drafting skills is, I think, the aspect of the revised course that may have the greatest impact on literacy levels.  It is also crucial to students' development as creative writers.

The aims of coursework may be laudable but the pitfalls are many. The inevitable risks of plagiarism, helicopter parents and helpful grinds will have to be factored in. But when you include that the person who teaches the students will be the same person assessing the work for summative assessment, the value of the whole project falls into question. Yes, we'll have our Features of Quality and our online samples, and yes, there will be intramural moderation but we all know it's impossible to objectively assess our own students.
Arguments against this have been well-rehearsed elsewhere ( , ) but we can't have too many voices added to protest against the hybrid monster that assessment will become. At the very least, if we cannot have external assessment, moderation at least has to come from the SEC. Anything else and grades will inflate like the Weimar Reichsbank Mark. And soaring grades mean falling standards; the very thing Junior Cycle reform purports to address.


Thursday, 19 September 2013


It's been a stressful, tiring week and I sat down yesterday evening to post my thoughts on the reform on Junior Cert English. I'd left my hard copy of the Draft Specification in work and went to look it up online; I couldn't find it on the NCCA website but found something called the Draft Syllabus for English. That was quick, I thought, as consultation on the Draft Specifications only closed last Thursday. I went ahead and gave my assessment of this document without realising it dates from 1989 and is actually a draft of the current syllabus.  No wonder it looked nearly the same!

Seriously, am seriously red in the face morto. For one thing, I should have recognised the draft as being almost identical to the syllabus I'm teaching, though thank God when it came to composing the real thing they left out Writing a Letter of Condolence. Imagine if that came up in Functional Writing? Knowing the capricious minds that compose the Junior Cert paper, it's probably something I should be covering.

So back to the Draft Specification, which, as Evelyn O'Connor writes here is an impressive document. It's impressive mostly in its documentalism, being put together by people who really know how to write a document, but who might seem a bit removed from the English classroom.  The document runs high to psychobabble and is full of assumptions and low on facts. One generalisation that particularly infuriated me was "Education systems across the world are increasingly supporting teachers to get beyond marks and grades to more detailed feedback that focuses not just on how the student has done in the past but on the next steps for further learning."

I don't know any English teacher whose only comment on student work is a mark out of x. But the real point is the idea that we'll all jump at the mention of "education systems across the world".  We need examples, real references, real studies and footnotes or links to research that we can verify to our own satisfaction.

An example of psychobabble in the document is the link between English and Key Skills. (Everything to do with the new Junior Cycle involves keys.) Under the skill "staying well" we learn that in English students will learn to "be confident".  Big Pharma has indeed done its job in defining shyness as an illness. That is not to say that I hope my students won't be more confident writers, readers and hopefully speakers, but I don't fool myself that I can actually make them confident in themselves. And I don't see my shyer, less forthcoming students as less well or healthy than their outspoken peers.

The new course is incredibly broad and ambitious. Here is a selection of tasks students are expected to master
-Engage in extended and constructive discussion of their own and other students, work. ( Not just "discuss", mind you, but "engage in extended and constructive discussion").
-Demonstrate how grammar, text structure and word choice vary with context and purpose.
-Be creative with syntax
-Read for research
-Appreciate how the meaning of sentences can be made richer through the use of grammatical and/or syntactical manipulation
-Write their responses in a "personal voice" as their individual style is thoughtfully developed over the years.
-Search a range of texts, including digital texts, in order to locate information, to interpret, critically evaluate, compare, synthesise and create text.

It's difficult to see how all this is going to be achieved with a cohort who have difficulty knowing quite from quiet or there from their and who frequently write "a lot" as one word. And it's hard to see how students' writing will improve so much when we're being told to spend less time on literature and more time listening to soundtracks and multimodal texts.

The document promises "a wide range of study" but you cannot broaden, broaden and broaden and not expect to compromise on quality. Just as you cannot increase and increase teachers' workload and expect us to bound into class brimming with enthusiasm.

The downgrading of literature within the English classroom is particularly worrying.  I was quite pleased with the inclusion of oral presentation in the specification. It's an important skill and one that ties in with English. However, I learned on Monday that it would be unacceptable for a student to pick a literary topic as a subject for his or her presentation. Favourite authors or books are out. The point of oral literacy seems to be less about encouraging expression and oratory, and more about training mini-middle-managers in the art of  props and PowerPointlessness.

Like all initiatives, the new Junior Cycle English will be modified and made more realistic on the ground.  It's coming and we'll have to get used to it. But this strikes me as an exercise in formatting students as products; well-adjusted, self-centred and unchallenged by anything irrelevant to their own lives. Nowhere in the specifications does it mention how English can bridge gaps between ourselves and others, between us and other cultures, between our time and other times and how it can deepen our sense of what it is to be human.

All Aboard the LE Junior Cycle


There were so many metaphors in the keynote speech delivered by Dr. Mark Fennell at Monday's JMB Educational Conference that by the end of it I could feel my head spinning. Metaphorically, of course, not like Linda Blair's.

We learned that it was okay to be at Ground Zero and that no-one has a monopoly on wisdom. We sailed through uncharted waters, in a craft powered by the engine of reform towards a land where working-class boys will be re-engaged with learning using the tools to turn the keys that will unlock their core learning priorities. The nautical theme continued with the Junior Cycle being refitted in the dry dock, before sailing on serenely as there will be no Big Bang.

Dr. Fennell's speech did indeed mark a key note, as for the rest of the day I heard about one-stop shops, the need to rebuild and how change cannot be achieved through spin. I'm sure there was a paradigm shift in there somewhere as well.

English is the first subject that will go through the transformation from Junior Cert subject to clump of learning objectives. I've taught and examined Junior Cert English for a few years now (not telling) and there a lot of scope there for reform. The course is poorly defined and the lack of prescribed texts makes standardised examination difficult. The exam layout favours speed-readers and those who can handwrite at breakneck pace. The amount of class-time spent on Shakespeare and novels - and the depth of knowledge and understanding that students can gain from this study -  is not reflected in the marking scheme. Lots wrong; but lots right as well. Teachers have autonomy; and while the open nature of the course and the subjectivity inherent in reading creative and personal writing make standardisation difficult, the SEC do their best to ensure each candidate's work is fairly assessed and rewarded. Most crucially, students have the privilege of having their work assessed by some-one who knows neither their name, their colour, their creed nor their reputation.

So in some respects reform is welcome, but just wait until you see what they have in mind.  English is no longer so much as subject of study as a vehicle for the Key Skills of Managing Myself, Being Creative, Staying Safe, Communicating and Working with Others.

Does it make sense to start this experimental process with what I once described in a HDip essay as the  "keystone subject"? That's debatable but I know for one thing that reading the Draft Specifications that were released in May found me groaning in frustration and foreboding. The margins of my copy of this NCCA document (the basis for the syllabus published today) are liberally ornamented with WTFs, FFSs and a few instances of "Duh!".  

The envisaged  syllabus is much more prescriptive than the old because the standardising element of the state examination will be largely done away with. It now counts for only 60% of a student's grade, not that they'll get grades anymore, only piano-exam descriptors like "achieved with higher merit". No-one has explained why As, Bs,  and Cs are being abolished but I suspect the work of my nemesis: mental health. 40% of the marks come from coursework.  The idea of teachers correcting children's homework and pretending it's some kind of qualification is some kind of joke.  In reality, the Junior Cert will be abolished and instead the third year summer report will be distinguished just by being printed on nicer paper. As long as the nice paper doesn't cost too much.


Because, in reality, junior cycle reform will constitute a major saving for the Department of Education. This is the rationale behind the move towards coursework and the abolition of State exams in all subjects except for English, Irish and Maths in the short-term, and all subjects in the long-term. Ruairi Quinn might claim that the changes are based on "compelling evidence from other countries" but neither I, nor any of my colleagues, have been informed of the whereabouts of this evidence.


I'll leave you now with a link to the specification, one to the One Stop Shop in which our young people's education is being sold to appease the proponents of austerity and short-term thinking.

 Note: Thanks to the commenter who pointed out that I'd stumbled on the 1989 syllabus, which is still on the NCCA website as "a draft" and mistakenly thought my fears for next year's first years were unfounded. An embarrassing error, which I can only blame on my raging head cold. I've reposted, leaving out the error and will post again on the specification. Apologies.


Thursday, 5 September 2013

Theme of the Month: Responsibility

In keeping with the serious, back-to-work ethos  of la rentrée, this month has been designated as Responsibility September: the month I finally grow up.

The thing with allowing other people to be responsible for you, is that ultimately you're only a side-show in the drama that is their own fascinating life. Other people love to help, but all this is helping, not doing. So, for example you might make a decision based on advice some-one gives you, but there's no point in blaming them when the advice was wrong. All they did was give you information. The information might have come surrounded by noise like "If I were you..." or "You should..." but these are just words. Sometimes advice doesn't even come with information. Sometimes it's just a case of "You must..." or "You would be crazy to..." or "Don't tell me you're thinking of..." I used to be very swayed by this type of thing, and would do what others advised, thinking that doing so somehow spread the responsibility. It didn't.

Doing what other people say they would do if they were you is stupid. Because if they really were you, that's not what they would do. If they were you, they'd do some research, filter out the advice-noise and make a rational decision. (In so far as any human decision can be rational, driven as we are by base desires and the urge to reach the pinnacle of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.) Most of the time, the last thing the If-I-Were-You-ers would do is let some-one else tell them what to do.

So this month I'm resolved to take responsibility for my own actions and choices.  I'm also trying to be more financially responsible, so in an effort to reverse my habits of  cent-wisdom v euro-folly, I'm making a note of my income and spending. In the five days so far, this has been illuminating and also has the benefit of focusing the mind.

The flip-side of assuming responsibility is abdicating responsibility for others. I'm in the unfortunate position of having no immediate dependants so I might as well capitalise on it.  I really have no-one else to mind except me. This month I will not only resist advice, I will also avoid dispensing it. And I will remind my self daily that it's not my job to make sure other people are nice to me.

Health and Calm Month update: This was way harder than anticipated. Excuses were much easier to find than the ten minutes I'd resolved to spend in meditation each morning. I made it to the gym a grand total of ten times in thirty-one days. I still haven't broken up with Diet Coke. On the whole it made me more aware that my smugness about my healthy lifestyle is completely unwarranted so part of Responsibility September is taking my health seriously and doing more exercise.

Joan Didion defines character as "The willingness to accept responsibility for your own life" and says it is the foundation of self-respect. What do you think? Please step up and take responsibility for being the first person to leave a comment. Not that I'm offering advice. As if.