Choosing the passage

The question of whether to choose the poem or the prose extract sometimes causes considerable unease on the part of students, and it is certainly an element of the paper that you will need to address.

As pointed out elsewhere in this section, one golden rule is NOT to go into the exam with the choice pre-determined.  Students are often left unstuck when, having decided to explore the poem or the prose extract beforehand, they find that the reality of the extract in front of them is not as they had expected or hoped. 

It is important to give your students good advice about this issue, some more salient features of which are listed below. 

Good reasons to choose the passage Bad reasons to choose the passage

The poem/prose extract seems is more interesting

I made my mind up before the exam

The poem/prose extract provokes a response in me

I prefer to write about poetry or prose
I like one or more features in particular The poem/prose extract seems easier to understand
Some elements strike me as ambiguous

I can identify lots of literary features

I see interesting contrasts or points of development There is nothing I do not 'understand'

Another point to make is that developing 'self awareness' about the passage that most interests them can ultimately help students take ownership of it - and identify elements of it that seem to them more important or interesting.  In this way, a sense of independent thinking can be exhibited, which is usually a hallmark of the more sophisticated - and higher-achieving - responses. 

The activity below is designed to encourage awareness on the part of your students about why they would choose a particular passage over another - and in so doing, develop understanding of the various 'hooks' through which literary writing can pitch for our attention and engagement.

Teaching suggestion:

1.  Give students the hand out (downloadable below), which contains the four passages listed here: 

1.  In the fresh-washed sunlight, the breakfast table is decked and white. It offers itself in flat surrender, tendering tastes, and smells, and colours, and metals, and grains, and the white cloth falls over its side, draped and wide. Wheels of white glitter in the silver coffee-pot, hot and spinning like catherine-wheels, they whirl, and twirl—and my eyes begin to smart, the little white, dazzling wheels prick them like darts. Placid and peaceful, the rolls of bread spread themselves in the sun to bask. A stack of butter-pats, pyramidal, shout orange through the white, scream, flutter, call: “Yellow! Yellow! Yellow!” Coffee steam rises in a stream, clouds the silver tea-service with mist, and twists up into the sunlight, revolved, involuted, suspiring higher and higher, fluting in a thin spiral up the high blue sky. A crow flies by and croaks at the coffee steam. The day is new and fair with good smells in the air. 

2.   No matter whether one is flying over Newfoundland or the sea of lights that stretches from Boston to Philadelphia after nightfall, over the Arabian deserts which gleam like mother-of-pearl, over the  Ruhr or the city of Frankfurt, it is as though there were no people, only the things they have made and in which they are hiding. One sees the places where they live and the roads that link them, one sees the smoke rising from their houses and factories, one sees the vehicles in which they sit, but one sees not the people themselves. And yet they are present everywhere upon the face of the earth, extending their dominion by the hour, moving around the honeycomb of towering buildings and tied into networks of a complexity that goes far beyond the power of any one individual to imagine, from the thousands of hoists and winches that once worked the South African diamond mines to the floors of today’s stock and commodity exchanges, through which the global tides of information flow without cease. If we view ourselves from a great height, it is frightening to realise how little we know about our species, our purpose and our end, I thought, as we crossed the coastline and flew out over the jelly-green sea. 

3. He was two hundred yards away now, and perhaps three hundred feet above the ground. Our  silence was a kind of acceptance, a death warrant. Or it was horrified shame, because the wind had dropped, and barely stirred against our backs. He had been on the rope so long that I began to think he might stay there until the balloon drifted down, or the boy came to his senses and found the valve that released the gas, or until some beam, or god, or some other impossible cartoon thing came and gathered him up. Even as I had that hope we saw him slip down right to the end of the rope. And still he hung there. For two seconds, three, four. And then he let go. Even then, there was a fraction of time when he barely fell, and I still thought there was a chance that a freak physical law, a furious thermal, some phenomenon no more astonishing than the one we were witnessing would intervene and bear him up. We watched him drop. You could see the acceleration. No forgiveness, no special dispensation for flesh, or bravery, or kindness. Only ruthless gravity. And from somewhere, perhaps from him, perhaps from some indifferent crow, a thin squawk cut through the stilled air. He fell as he had hung, a stiff little black stick. I’ve never seen such a terrible thing as that falling man. 

4. Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years. He told them what it was like to be childless all these years. To repeat the days with the ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty. The party food, the celebrations he’s worked over. Icing knuckle-deep. The tiny wedding couples stuck into cakes. Hundreds of them, no thousands by now. Birthdays. Just imagine all those candles burning. He had a necessary trade. He was a baker. He was glad he wasn’t a florist. It was better to be feeding people. This was a better smell anytime than flowers. “Smell this,” the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. “It’s a heavy bread, but rich.” They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and course grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the florescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving. 

 Download the passages here

2.  Ask students to read the passages and choose the one they think they would choose to write about, if they were asked to

3.  Then ask them to identify the reasons for choosing one over the others.  The list below might provide some guidance:

  • An interest in the presentation of character and/or a relationship
  • A focus on setting
  • An engaging use of literary language
  • Something engaging about the narrator and his or her voice
  • A sense of atmosphere that is generated
  • The cumulative effect of particular detail
  • The presentation of significant physical action
  • Something mysterious ambiguous or unexplained

4.    Discussing why a particular passage resonates more for you than another, and comparing reasons with another student, is of course a powerful reminder of the fact that meaning in literary works is as much found as it is discovered. But whatever the course the discussion takes, you will hopefully be able to use the exercise as a means to encourage ownership of a passage - a recognition that the commentary is in many respects simply a record of the way in which an extract of literary writing affects an individual, which may or may not correlate very closely with someone else.

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