Morag Venter

    Morag Venter taught high school English for 20 years and is a former head of English and senior marker for Senior Certificate. She is co-compiler of two current Grade 12 literature anthologies.

    Many years ago I decided something had to be done about the scrappy, incomplete and useless literature notebooks belonging to my weaker pupils.  Every year it was the same story.  The year would start off well: logical, legible notes would be written in the first two, or maybe three, pages but gradually, as books were left at home or someone was absent or the day was hot and I was boring, the notes descended into chaos.  Pages mysteriously came loose (the attached page having been used for Maths or History or a heart-rending love letter!), printed notes fluttered out whenever a page was turned  and, when exams arrived, all the pupil had to study from was a collection of dog-eared pages in no particular order.  Not a promising situation, especially as there is no textbook to refer to.

    And yet these pupils were not trying to be difficult.  They generally participated in class, knew the bones of the plot and could offer some amazing insights at times.  I realised that many of them were just not academically disciplined or gifted enough to organise their books logically to ensure that they were user-friendly.  Many of the pupils simply started each entry on a new page – usually undated and without a heading!  If one asked them to add in information on a topic one had previously discussed, most of them fudged the issue and simply scribbled something somewhere on a blank centimetre of space – just to suggest that they were trying to be co-operative – but hadn’t a clue where the item should be placed.

    What to do?  There simply wasn’t time to check the books often enough – and to follow up meaningfully was becoming a nightmare!  And all that checking and nagging meant that periods often became battlegrounds instead of opportunities to discuss and experience new ideas.

    After much reading and thinking I decided that I had to spend more time with the pupils formatting these books.  To do so, I had to make sure that I knew the play or novel thoroughly before starting to teach it.  More than ever, I needed to plan the questions I wanted to set on each act/chapter as well as the issues I wanted to highlight in advance so that my strategy was clear.  (Really what I was doing was drafting the Lesson Plans and Assessment Standards although nobody used those terms in those days!)

    Our first lesson was an extremely practical one.  At that stage everyone still had a pen, a ruler, a pencil and even had a notebook!  So we could work together.

    I insisted on a separate book for each setwork.  No-one was allowed to do a novel from one end and poetry from the other!

    Then we proceeded to allocate pages. All they had to do was to pencil in the appropriate heading at the appropriate place.  I didn’t have time to wait for those who enjoy decorating each page with coloured kokis!  That could be done at home, if they wished to do so. Although I issued a written explanation of what we were going to do, I found it useful to walk them through the procedure.  The time spent was recouped later as we did not have to wait while the pupils paged endlessly through to find the right page – everyone knew exactly where their neighbour’s page would be!

    For the novel or a play, I allocated the first page(s) to Background.  This was where we would collect comments on historical details/ setting/purpose (e.g. What Golding aimed to discuss in Lord of the Flies.  What is a fable?, etc). Most of this was information I would provide.

    Thereafter, we allocated a double page to each Main Character and a single page to supporting characters.  The page(s) was divided into columns: Physical description, Background details, Character – and a separate column where we would accumulate evidence of where these character traits became apparent. At this stage the names are meaningless to the class but already they are interacting with the characters and learning to spell the names correctly.  The lesson is therefore not merely administrative. I also squeezed in a half-column on the role or significance of this character to the development of the plot or theme (eg foil, representing the educated, thoughtful type of person, etc) although this would be completed only after we had read and discussed the whole book.

    More double pages were allocated to key themes and images – it is up to you whether you label these initially or simply leave the pages blank to be used when the themes emerge. And the rest of the workbook could be used for short questions and essays.  Only the back two pages were reserved.  These we used for important vocabulary items – words which were essential to their understanding of the text.

    As we began to study the book, we spent time transferring information to the appropriate pages and columns.  Pupils needed only to write down the relevant word or phrase in the column, although we generally included a page reference under Character so we could justify our choice of adjective. This activity might be during class – when one needed a change of pace or activity – or at home where this action might serve to indicate that they had read the required pages or listened in class.  Sometimes this was done individually, sometimes as a group.  One could vary this considerably using timed sessions or getting different groups to do different research for the class.  The rigid structure of the notebook does not necessitate a rigid lesson structure.  It merely helps the pupils to be organised.

    I found this made my life much easier.  I could check the books more speedily, picking up at a glance who had included too little information and whose work was too sloppy to be acceptable. Group discussions became more meaningful as the individuals had something concrete to contribute.  Pupils could also assess each others’ work more easily.  A pupil who was absent could catch up something of what they had missed. The pupils learnt to distinguish between character and appearance, something weaker pupils struggle to do.  And when we begin to write setwork essays, the necessary information was readily available so I could focus attention on the skills of writing.  Because each pupil had written down their own descriptors and highlighted the proofs they felt most valuable, these essays were still very individualistic – and there was no danger of producing ‘model answers’ which the pupils simply learn off by heart.  Moreover, because filling in the columns had required active involvement with the text, the pupils had developed some insight which enabled them to write about the text more confidently.

    Eventually, I used this method for my top class as well.  I found that they appreciated being able to focus on the argument and the insight, rather than on the organisation of their notes.  There is no foolproof method, but this strategy vastly improved the quality of the notebooks.  I knew that almost everything the pupils needed to use for studying was in a ‘findable place’. And more importantly, although their style and their argument might be somewhat inadequate, at least they could show the examiner that they knew what was going on.

    Perhaps you too will find it useful.

    Categories: Issue I