'Taking Ownership...'

Thursday 19 April 2018

The vital importance of being confident

'Taking Ownership' is a phrase that I find myself using a lot in lessons and it relates to a central idea that can be applied in various ways through the course’s different modes of assessment.   I also find it to be one that I am using particularly this week, as students set about final preparations for their exams.  

Fundamentally, for me, the idea of ‘taking ownership’ implies  the assumption of some kind of independent control over the material being studied, and - perhaps more particularly - the response that is demanded by the assessment task.  If your experience is in any way similar to mine, students coming out of pre-IB examination courses all too frequently see the idea of literary analysis as a ‘search for the deeper meaning’ - a quest for the singular treasure that has somehow been deliberately locked away by the author, showing itself to only a privileged few. For these kinds of students, the teacher is typically seen as the gatekeeper, in possession of the key, and the task of the student is either to work out or discover  what it ‘is’ - e.g. as if 'it' were something with an inherent truth value.  For obvious reasons, this is an unhelpful way to think about the process of literary analysis - and of course it sits in almost diametric opposition to the emphasis placed by our course on notions of independent critical reading and the construction of an argument. 

‘Taking ownership’ is a phrase that, for me at least, serves to remind students of their right to a text;  it takes account of the fact that meaning is at least in part an act of construction and that the process of putting forward an argument depends on selection, analysis and interpretation of evidence in order to support a particular reading.   Perhaps, more succinctly, it is about teaching students to feel confident with their own ideas, to resist the idea of the ‘treasure hunt’ for hidden meaning, and to process the fact that the best kinds of literary writing demonstrate reflective, critical or independent thinking. Furthermore,  feeling able to do this is an important component in being able to do it.  One of the things I remember from my teacher training course (many years ago now!) is the Virgil quotation ‘They are able because they think they are able.’ The notion of progress being as much about the way students see themselves -  their understanding and level of skill in a course, in my experience, can make a very big difference to the rate at which they actually develop. 

These points being said, taking greater account of the fact that persuasive literary analysis relates to an ability to think for oneself does not of course mean therefore that ‘it is all subjective’.  When students say this - often in the context of talking about a reading of the Paper 1 unseen poem or prose extract , I usually reply with something like ‘Ok, so does that mean  - if it is all a matter of personal opinion, I can say this poem is about the relationship between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader?’  Opinions, as we well know in this day and age, mean very little when they are not grounded in concrete evidence. 

Some of the contexts in which I find myself using the phrase are as follows (starting with those that which are, at the moment - as we approach the exams, the most pressing):

In Paper 1:  encourage students to see the process of annotating the poem or extract, categorising their ideas, sequencing them into an order - and coming up with a central argument - as one through which they take independent control of the material.  This does not mean assuming they can say anything they like about the passage because of course they need to support all points with accurate reading of the details of the text.  But it does mean coming to understand that:

  • They can’t cover everything.
  • There are different ways to organise their points.
  • There is no such thing as an expected number of paragraphs.
  • A thesis can emerge from a variety of different contexts.
  • They should not go into the exam preset to choose either the poem or the prose.
  • They should not choose the passage they are going to write about quickly.
  • They should not choose the passage they feel is necessarily ‘easier’.  Doing so might make the writing happen more readily, but it might equally lead to superficial answers.

In Paper 2: encourage students to take time working out the best way to structure their essay in response to the implications of the question - a close reading of which is absolutely vital, as well as in a manner that logically and purposefully develops their argument.  The argument is, at least in my experience, the key.  I would advise reminding them of the following:

  • As with Paper 1, it is better to choose a question that makes them think harder, than one that is seemingly ‘easier’.
  • Paper 2 should not be seen as an attempt to cram in as many pre-learned quotations as possible.  Better essays will indeed use supporting evidence in the form of direct quotation, but remember that ‘knowledge’ can be demonstrated through reference to specific moments, scenes and/or events just as well.
  • The argument can emerge from a variety of different sources.  It might be that (certainly for HL students), they develop a reading of the question on the basis of which text places more emphasis or makes more use of the convention identified in the question.  Alternative ways of thinking about the argument could be:
    • How important is the convention or subject identified in the title to the impact of the texts?
    • What fundamental ‘point/s’ does the author seem to be saying - about life, or perhaps about art - in and through the area of focus?
    • How important the area of focus is to the development of the text/s?
    • The most important or central point of comparison between the texts to have emerged from the essay.
  • The essay should not assume a structure that is predefined.  As long as, overall, there is equal emphasis given to the texts chosen, then paragraphs can switch between texts - or not - depending on the way the argument needs to develop.
  • Think of the essay as a kind of narrative - a story being told.  When structuring the essay, it is better to spend time focusing on the main point/s that a paragraph intends to make than the topic with which it is concerned.  This is to ensure that an argument exists, and that each paragraph is actually ‘saying’ something.
  • The criteria for ‘Organisation and Development’ mention the terms ‘effective’ at SL and ‘persuasive’ at HL as hallmarks of the highest levels of achievement in this more technical category.  It is worth discussing what these terms really mean.

In the Written Coursework:  encourage students to make notes throughout the study of their translated texts on elements that reflect their own independent interest.  The more they can think for themselves about the works, the better.  Of course this is true of all components of the course, but it is particularly important in terms of the requirement that  they come up with an essay topic themselves.  For me, this places emphasis on:

  • The way in which those texts are taught.  Perhaps it is worth seeing the teaching more as an exercise in ‘opening up’ the works to the various levels through which their meaning is constructed more than neceessarily a thorough analysis of the complete work (which might more represent a  characteristic of the teaching of Paper 2 works, for instance).
  • The Interactive Oral:  talking to your students about the management of this, about who is speaking and how turn taking is (or is not) taking place - just as much as the content being discussed - is an important step towards the formation of independent responses.  Those familiar with the Harkness method will be on more familiar ground here, perhaps.
  • Prompts for Supervised Writing:  think hard about the phrasing of these so that they identify a specific area of focus, but are phrased in a way that accommodates (or in fact encourages) a variety of critical directions in response.
  • The planning of the essay:  given the fact that you can only respond to one written draft, making your students work hard on their plan - and particularly the sequence of points or the stages of the argument made therein - is vital.

In the Internal Assessment orals: for both Part 2 and Part 4 assessment tasks, independent ownership is key.  Students need to see both assessments as an opportunity to showcase their own thinking and to feel confident in doing so. 

In Part 2 this might mean:

  • Exploring the best way to make use of the 20 minute preparation time in order to do proper justice to the criteria.
  • As with Paper 1, encouraging students to recognise that they cannot cover everything and should select elements of content and style which they feel play a more important role, or carry the most impact.
  • Coming up with a central argument - even if it as simple as identifying one thing that seems the most important, or which creates the most significant impact in the poem or extract.
  • Providing a meaningful conclusion.

In Part 4 this might mean:

  • As said earlier in reference to Part 1, maintaining (perhaps in a journal) independent notes on aspects of the texts which have been the most interesting or meaningful to the student.
  • Stressing the point that the most successful presentations are typically ones in which the student demonstrates an obvious sense of independent engagement:  they are talking about a topic they have decided upon, as opposed to one that their teacher might have suggested. 
  • Being exposed to a range of formal and less formal ways of responding to literary texts through the teaching of them e.g. trying some creative writing, using drama, referring to art or photography.  In part this might counter the (sometimes inevitable) slide towards PowerPoint, but also to encourage students to think more about the most effective way in which to present their topic.  A formal approach might be best in the end, but it should not be the one to which students naturally default.

Taking Ownership therefore, is a phase that encapsulates all aspects of the course in which you seek to develop confidence on the part of your students.  A willingness to trust their own thoughts, emotions and instincts.  A capacity to dissect the way/s in which they respond to literary works is a result of the magic of words being put together in exciting ‘literary’ ways.

In these last couple of weeks, your second year/grade 12/upper sixth students will be keen to receive any and all kinds of advice from you no doubt;  mine will focus much on the ideas (which are also feelings) that I have tried to  articulate here. 

I hope your students find the questions they get manageable and that they do as well as they possibly can.  To cite once again the film mentioned earlier in this text, May The Force be with them.



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