AQA · literature · Teaching Ideas

Let the context do the talking … A Christmas Carol

The recent AQA training on exemplifying the Literature standard threw up an interesting idea to help the more able students reach those top levels. The examiner suggested these as features of a level 6 student:

  • A focus on the text as a conscious construct
  • Setting out an overall argument and using the rest of the answer to support this argument
  • Offering a conceptualised approach
  • A coherent argument that is sustained throughout the response and analysis that is linked to this

Talking to a colleague we thought about this in relation to the notion of AO3 context and how students still, despite our advice/teaching/training, still see the contextual element as a bolt-on, something to add on the end of (each? WHY?) paragraph to show that they can link the text to (an often) generalised comment about women/poverty/Victorian morality/James 1st’s fascination with witchcraft.

One way around this is to use the contextual factor to drive the paragraph or part of the response. So beginning with something like Stevenson uses the character of “Jekyll to explore the hypocrisy of Victorian England” enables the brighter students to develop more perceptive focused responses. One of my students wrote this using AO3 to drive their point:

 

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A Christmas Carol

I’m about to embark on A Christmas Carol revision with another year 11 group and I was looking around trying to find some interesting contextual material. Here is a letter from Charles Dickens on “ragged schooling” that first appeared in The Daily News on Feb 4th 1846. In it Charles Dickens reflects on his visit to Field Lane Ragged School. Ragged schools were set up to provide free education to children in poverty and formed part of the drive towards a fairer system of education in the 1800s. A really detailed description of the schools and their origins can be found here:  https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/ragged-schools#sthash.KFyKlpnN.dpuf  Dickens begins his letter with a warning that unless something is done about children’s poverty, then ‘the capital city of the world,’ would become, ‘a vast hopeless nursery of ignorance, misery and vice; a breeding place for the hulks and jails’.

This attempt is being made in certain of the most obscure and squalid parts of the Metropolis, where rooms are opened, at night, for the gratuitous instruction of all comers, children or adults, under the title of RAGGED SCHOOLS. The name implies the purpose. They who are too ragged, wretched, filthy, and forlorn, to enter any other place: who could gain admission into no charity school, and who would be driven from any church door; are invited to come in here, and find some people not depraved, willing to teach them something, and show them some sympathy, and stretch a hand out, which is not the iron hand of Law, for their correction.

Before I describe a visit of my own to a Ragged School, and urge the readers of this letter for God’s sake to visit one themselves, and think of it (which is my main object), let me say, that I know the prisons of London well; that I have visited the largest of them more times than I could count; and that the children in them are enough to break the heart and hope of any man. I have never taken a foreigner or a stranger of any kind to one of these establishments but I have seen him so moved at sight of the child offenders, and so affected by the contemplation of their utter renouncement and desolation outside the prison walls, that he has been as little able to disguise his emotion, as if some great grief had suddenly burst upon him.

[We] know perfectly well that these children pass and repass through the prisons all their lives; that they are never taught; that the first distinctions between right and wrong are, from their cradles, perfectly confounded and perverted in their minds; that they come of untaught parents, and will give birth to another untaught generation; that in exact proportion to their natural abilities, is the extent and scope of their depravity; and that there is no escape or chance for them in any ordinary revolution of human affairs. Happily, there are schools in these prisons now. If any readers doubt how ignorant the children are, let them visit those schools and see them at their tasks, and hear how much they knew when they were sent there. If they would know the produce of this seed, let them see a class of men and boys together, at their books (as I have seen them in the House of Correction for this county of Middlesex), and mark how painfully the full grown felons toil at the very shape and form of letters; their ignorance being so confirmed and solid. The contrast of this labour in the men, with the less blunted quickness of the boys; the latent shame and sense of degradation struggling through their dull attempts at infant lessons; and the universal eagerness to learn, impress me, in this passing retrospect, more painfully than I can tell.

(He goes on to describe the ragged school) …

It consisted at that time of either two or three–I forget which-miserable rooms, upstairs in a miserable house. In the best of these, the pupils in the female school were being taught to read and write; and though there were among the number, many wretched creatures steeped in degradation to the lips, they were tolerably quiet, and listened with apparent earnestness and patience to their instructors. The appearance of this room was sad and melancholy, of course–how could it be otherwise!–but, on the whole, encouraging.

The close, low chamber at the back, in which the boys were crowded, was so foul and stifling as to be, at first, almost insupportable. But its moral aspect was so far worse than its physical, that this was soon forgotten. Huddled together on a bench about the room, and shown out by some flaring candles stuck against the walls, were a crowd of boys, varying from mere infants to young men; sellers of fruit, herbs, lucifer-matches, flints; sleepers under the dry arches of bridges; young thieves and beggars–with nothing natural to youth about them: with nothing frank, ingenuous, or pleasant in their faces; low-browed, vicious, cunning, wicked; abandoned of all help but this; speeding downward to destruction; and UNUTTERABLY IGNORANT.

This, Reader, was one room as full as it could hold; but these were only grains in sample of a Multitude that are perpetually sifting through these schools; in sample of a Multitude who had within them once, and perhaps have now, the elements of men as good as you or I, and maybe infinitely better; in sample of a Multitude among whose doomed and sinful ranks (oh, think of this, and think of them!) the child of any man upon this earth, however lofty his degree, must, as by Destiny and Fate, be found, if, at its birth, it were consigned to such an infancy and nurture, as these fallen creatures had!

This was the Class I saw at the Ragged School. They could not be trusted with books; they could only be instructed orally; they were difficult of reduction to anything like attention, obedience, or decent behaviour; their benighted ignorance in reference to the Deity, or to any social duty (how could they guess at any social duty, being so discarded by all social teachers but the gaoler and the hangman!) was terrible to see. Yet, even here, and among these, something had been done already. The Ragged School was of recent date and very poor; but he had inculcated some association with the name of the Almighty, which was not an oath, and had taught them to look forward in a hymn (they sang it) to another life, which would correct the miseries and woes of this.

First published February 4, 1846, The Daily News

I will certainly be reading this with my students and ask them to think of how this letter can be used to inform their writing about AO3 in the novel. Hopefully, the first thing that they will remark on is how this echoes the figures of ‘ignorance’ and ‘want’ as they appear in stave 3:

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

 

The extract and the letter inform each other, providing an illuminating context for our understanding of the two characters. It is important to see that Dickens states quite categorically that it is ‘ignorance’ that is the most dangerous of the two for it is ignorance – and thus, lack of education – which breeds the ills of the world.

 

Another really interesting and thought-provoking article is this by Michael Faber, published in the Guardian:  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/dec/24/featuresreviews.guardianreview22

Spectral Pleasures – Michael Faber on A Christmas Carol

The heartless exploitation of the underprivileged enraged [Dickens]. In all his work, he argues not only that we as individuals have a duty to care for our less fortunate neighbours, but also that governments and institutions must be exposed and shamed whenever they fail to show adequate compassion. In our own era, when the arrogant behaviour of global empire-builders and corporations is causing ever-mounting distress among the world’s poor, we need to pay attention when Scrooge compliments Marley on having been “a good man of business”. The ghost, shackled to the useless baggage of his own greed, bemoans his failure to understand that the whole of humanity should have been his concern. “The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

Yet, these philosophies, important and wise though they may be, are not the whole reason why A Christmas Carol has been loved by so many for so long. There are thousands of novels that tell us that we should be kinder and more moral. Most of them gather dust, unread. The real secret of A Christmas Carol’s essentialness lies not in solemn preaching but in the dark, joyous energy that drove Dickens to create. It lies in the weird magic of Scrooge’s adventures, the awesome visions of the Spirits, the gruesome hinge of Marley’s jaw. And, most of all, it lies in the real truth about Scrooge’s change of heart – a truth much deeper than the conventional explanation, that he learned he must be a nicer, “better” person. Yes, Scrooge does change in this way. But that doesn’t explain why he ends the novel cavorting in impish glee, giggling and playing pranks. He could, after all, have remained the same gloomy old man, except more generous with money. The real miracle of his transformation is that, at long last, he’s capable of having fun.

Dickens valued morality, but what he really worshipped was merriment – the buzz of making other people happy, of making a moment glow, of dancing a jig for no particular reason. The greatest tragedy he could imagine was an existence devoid of excitement or playfulness, a biding of time on the way to the grave. Fun, for him, was the only compensation for death, the dismal inevitability of which preyed constantly on his mind. Scrooge’s triumph is that he stares his own corpse in the face, and, instead of despairing, defiantly resolves to enjoy the gift of life to the full. He is galvanised by a thousand volts of goodwill. Witnessing his transformation, we realise with a pang of regret that we are hard-hearted too, and that it might take a thousand volts to transform us likewise. We cling, miser-like, to our self-protective anxieties, our emotional meanness, our pointless inhibitions. Perhaps we’re all waiting for the Ghosts of our own Past, Present and Future to burst through our defences, seize us by the hand and shock us into joy. Until that day, we revisit A Christmas Carol and watch this alarming miracle happen to someone else.

Written by a writer about a writer, the whole article is not afraid to be iconoclastic (“The story’s implicit claim that rich, nasty people have no friends or fun, while poor, nice people are blessed with warm companionship and entertainment, is somewhat shaky”) but it also explores the overly sentimental moralising as a reflection of Dickens’ times. The story is a morality play and its extremes of character are necessary for its message to be heard.

In the classroom, I want to use some of the salient points from these two texts to get students to write about the novel, letting AO3 do the talking. Give the students some phrases like these:

  1. Dickens had warm memories of his own childhood Christmases.
  1. The 1840s was a time of huge distress amongst the working classes.
  1. Dickens believed that the true test of a society’s moral worth was how it treated its children.
  1. Dickens campaigned for better rights and education for children.
  1. Dickens battled against the utilitarian beliefs of the time. Utilitarians believed that individuals were merely cogs in the wider machine of society and that they should be squeezed of every last drop of usefulness.
  1. Dickens enjoyed combining the macabre with humour.
  1. Some thought the book was merely propaganda for a universal charity.
  1. A Christmas Carol is a morality tale and all the characters are drawn to their extremes.
  1. Dickens has to romanticise the poor in order for his story to have an impact.
  1. The intervention of the author is partly a reflection of the convention of reading novels aloud and performing them to an audience.
  1. The novel shows Dickens to be a master of Gothic atmosphere.
  1. Christmas was not what it is now. In Dickens’ time it is linked to a celebration of the imagination, fantasy, storytelling.

There is a range of statements here that cut across social, historical and cultural contexts. I like the macabre humour statement – Faber uses the description of Marley’s jaw dropping after he removes the bandages which, according to Faber, would make a great Sam Raimi/Evil Dead moment. There might be too many here to use in one lesson and some are more accessible than others, but this might be the challenge for higher ability students to tackle – if that’s what you want.

Once students have chosen their statement, they could find an extract from the book that encapsulates this idea and craft a response around it.

On a micro level, they could just find a quotation and then construct a paragraph around this, using a check list like the one below:

Dickens had warm memories of his own childhood Christmases.

  • Where is this reflected in the novel?
  • Find an appropriate quotation.
  • How does your chosen example show a sense of warmth and happiness? Zoom in on a word or phrase.
  • What else is Dickens trying to show about Christmas in your chosen example? What do you feel about how Dickens has presented Christmas here? Is Dickens successful in capturing ‘warm memories’ or do you have a different opinion?

Another way you can use these statements is through socratic talk.

Of course, beginning every paragraph with one of these statements might be too onerous (and AO3 after all is 6 of the 30 marks) but I like the way this sort of task makes students see beyond the novel and begin to explore it as a construct. It also offers a range of alternative approaches to AO3 that move beyond the stock phrase ‘this shows Dickens was against poverty’.

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