Lessons from the 2019 A-Levels

2019ALevel

We’ve been on quite the hiatus, haven’t we! It’s been two intense years with my first cohort of Lit students and with both papers over, there’s now time to gather our thoughts, sleep a little and think about next steps. Without Google Classroom, I’ll settle for the equivalent of ranting at a white wall. You, future JC2 Lit student or future me might find this and the next Paper 3-focused post useful in the lead-up to the 2020 or even 2021 A-Levels, so here’s hoping this is useful.

Unseen But Not Unpredictable?

“Thank you sir tan”, reads one of our students’ comments! Billy Colllins’ ‘Introduction to Poetry’ is a personal favourite of mine and Mr Ian Tan’s. In his words, “I knew it would come out one day due to their penchant for setting ars poetica poems”. This seems a fair assertion: the 2018 A-Level paper, as well as the Specimen Paper released way back in 2011 (for the 2013-2017 syllabus), were based on the creative process of writing a poem.

The question prompt ‘education‘ and selection of poems demands that we pay attention to the role of readers in navigating the poem (quite literally in Collins’ poem) to both understand and appreciate it on their own terms. No government censorship or sanitised readings by ‘experts’, or insistence on a unidimensional ‘confession’ from the poem.

The other question on ‘time‘ presented, for me, a rather obscure poem ‘By Air to Germany’ paired with ‘Time Difference’, the mandatory ‘Singapore poem’. The closing lines of both seem to link the concept of time to distance and separation between people: defined in these terms, we might find similarities with previous questions on loss (2018), different generations’ perceptions of each other (Specimen), care (2017), separation (2016), passing of time (2015), married love (2014) and childhood separation (2013). In particular, there are echoes of the specimen and 2015 with their consideration of familial relationships and time.

While really abstract topics like ‘time’ may appear, it is useful to note that the poems themselves still revolve around universal human experiences of love, emotions, growing old, connecting with others et al.

The topics ‘education’ and ‘time’ however, were not immediately obvious or prominent in the poems themselves. I’m inclined towards dismissing this as bad question setting, but there is merit to setting ‘awkward topics‘ and preparing students to deal with them.

Unexpected PBQ Topics, Non-Key Extracts 

We could say the same for PBQ selection and setting. The episodes/scenes for Pride and Prejudice and Measure for Measure, along with several other texts (e.g. The Great Gatsby), were not particularly crucial or prominent in the respective texts. Here are what some of our students had to say:

I think sieving out the evidence was not as intuitive as it was with other practices. Also i wish we had more practice with non-key scenes like these because it was harder to pick out points relating to the key themes / see its immediate relevance in the plot.

The idea prompt was pretty standard, but the passage was not as prominent as other scenes in Measure to discuss about morality.

There was some difficulty in linking the passage to the theme they specified and come up with points from there.

The 2018 A-Level PBQ for Pride and Prejudice was relatively ‘kind’ to the hardworking student who would have studied and close-analysed Chapter 36 to death. I have always believed that ‘the most important scene’ in any text would never be set as a PBQ, and the hypothesis is true as far as I know. If the 2019 paper were a teacher, then practising more ‘unexpected PBQs’ or ‘non-key scenes’ is the lesson learnt. I shall wait patiently for you, Lydia Bennet (P&P) and Lucio (MM)!

A tricky key word of social tensions but pretty manageable upon breaking down and linking to familiar concerns of manners, expectations and gender roles 🙂

I felt relatively prepared for this question since morality was a familiar topic that has been addressed substantially in Paper 1 lectures and tutorials!

Had a little bit of trouble linking Claudio’s speech/metaphors to ideas on morality. Maybe it could help if in lectures we did lectures around specific characters and the ideas/themes that we can best associate them with

Student sentiment on the topic or question prompt was, as for the unseen, mixed. ‘Social tensions’ was clearly awkward – the reader would easily grasp the tensions between the seemingly proud Darcy and the sycophantically intrusive Miss Bingley, but ‘social tensions’ invites a range of other interpretations that students might associate with General Paper or History. The lesson for students would be, as the above comment highlights, to always link the topic to what you have studied – one can indeed assess Darcy and Miss Bingley’s dialogue in relation to social manners and conventions.

The topic of ‘ideas about morality‘ for Measure for Measure was familiar given the essay questions and lectures devoted to the topic. Despite his role in the plot, Claudio is ultimately a minor or supporting character. The passage can be understood to present two distinct ideas on morality – human nature and its propensity to act with ‘too much liberty’ (in relation to his sexual relations with Julietta), and the morally dubious reasons for Angelo’s application of the law. In this light, the question is fair as it raises concerns of Claudio and Angelo’s moral actions – with the note that Angelo himself is not present and we hear Claudio’s interpretation of Angelo – which are debated for much of the play. So while the concern or idea is ‘obvious’, the actual passage may not be the most obvious. Angelo’s morality is called into question by Lucio, the Duke, Isabella and of course, by Angelo’s misdeeds from Act 2 onwards.

The Curious Recurrence of Questions

‘Spotting’ questions is something I try to do each year, in a safe maybe even beneficial imitation of a compulsive gambler. I was rather confident in mid-Term 3 that the focus of the Pride and Prejudice essay question would be concern or idea-based (e.g. social manners) given that the previous year had given us a character-based question centred on minor characters. The specimen paper question was based on money and marriage, so something like social manners or appearances seemed to be in order. Lo and behold:

  • Discuss the significance in the novel as a whole of Austen’s presentation of the relationship between Charlotte and Mr Collins. (2018 A-Level P1 Q5a)
  • Discuss Austen’s portrayal of the relationship between Mr and Mrs Bennet in the novel. (2019 A-Level P1 Q5a)

The same ‘trigger’ or ‘base’ recurred, disproving the assumption that topics would vary (e.g. main character > concern > minor character > method). Looking further back, this recurrence held true for the essay questions set for Austen’s Mansfield Park: Fanny’s centrality to the novel, Edmund being ‘admirable’, Mrs Norris’s role are character-based questions appeared between 2017 and 2015 while the significance of ‘Lover’s Vow’ and Fanny’s point of view are method-based questions surfacing in 2014 and 2013 respectively. The essay questions set for The Age of Innocence, a text I previously taught, were all idea-based (2013-17).

Casting our eyes to Measure for Measure, we saw how the topic itself can recur with some changes. The Duke’s disguise as Friar Lodowick, under scutiny in the 2018 PBQ, would be an important point of discussion for the 2019 essay question (on top of his moral and judicial responsibilities).

  • Write a critical commentary on the following passage (from Act 3 Scene 2), relating it to the effects of disguise, here and elsewhere in the play. (2018 A-Level P1 Q7b)
  • “The Duke is hiding from himself.” In the light of this comment, discuss Shakespeare’s dramatic portrayal of the Duke. (2019 A-Level P1 Q7a)

Recalling The Age of Innocence once more, the topic of the 2015 essay question borrowed much from the specimen paper question as well.

  • ‘This is a novel in which nothing is private.’ How far do you find this a helpful comment on social life in The Age of Innocence? (2012 Specimen P1)
  • ‘The novel is about being watched.’ How far do you agree with this comment on The Age of Innocence? (2015 A-Level P1)

–-

Practice Has Its Merits

What is the lesson then, you ask? Well, there is no harm in doing more of the same question trigger or topic.

The same holds especially true for Paper 3 Section C, which features only essay questions. Just as intriguingly, the concept of ‘facing the truth’ in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (linked to George’s violent treatment of Martha and equally violent ‘murder’ of the son-myth) could be re-applied to the 2019 question on ‘attacks on the mind and self’.

  • ‘Albee presents facing the truth as an assault on the mind and the self.’ How far do you agree with this view of the play? (2018 A-Level P3)
  • In relation to ideas about the mind and self, discuss the dramatic presentation of aggression and violence in the play. (2019 EJC JC2 Prelim P3)
  • Consider some of the ways in which attacks on the mind and self are dramatically presented in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (2019 A-Level P3)

Correspondingly, the specimen paper question on role-playing and performances and the 2018 question on the use of past narratives bears similarities to the 2019 question on illusions about themselves. The content for ‘past questions’ can be adapted to answer these ‘new questions’; diversity or range of topics does not appear to be a major factor in question-setting at the A-Levels.

  • ‘George and Martha are shown to play roles to avoid confronting their real selves.’ How far do you agree? (2016 Specimen P3)
  • Consider Albee’s dramatic presentation of characters’ illusions about themselves in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (2019 A-Level P3)

In my next post, I will be commenting more specifically about 2019 Paper 3 and possible approaches to answering the typically ‘broad and general’ questions in the topic paper. Till then!

Their Song

TheirSong

Having started on the significance of Albee’s title in our introductory lecture ‘The Wolves Amongst Us’, a return to the title – or more precisely Martha and George’s song – would help us consolidate what we have learned about the protagonists’ relationship, as well as their internal struggles. Some confusion about the the song has also arisen, partly because ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf’ (not to be confused with the title Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) is variously sung by Martha and George in different contexts for different purposes. These intentions stand alongside the song’s overall signification of a life without false illusions (‘Virginia Woolf’).

Continue reading “Their Song”

Different Language

MirrorMaking the rounds online is Pooja Nansi’s commentary on the need for poetry on our shores – read it if you haven’t yet done so!

‘Young people of my generation seem more passionate than ever about ensuring our country is a reflection of all that we have to offer, but we are also struggling to talk about issues that are difficult and won’t fit into a neat box. We don’t know how to work with things we cannot easily define. We are a society in love with pie charts, acronyms, data, neat slogans that help define and neatly explain our concerns.

But there are things in the world, in life and in the human condition, where the most real things – like questions of belonging, identity and loss – cannot be quantified, neatly packaged, or sometimes, even named. This is also why Singaporeans don’t read poetry.

Poetry demands that you suspend yourself in uncertainty, it asks for meaning to unfold in its own time and this can be incredibly uncomfortable if you are used to constant certainty.

But it is precisely in situations where we are forced to struggle with the unknowns of life when we tend to turn to poetry. It is no coincidence that poetry resurges in difficult times like war or times of complex human emotions, like weddings and funerals. Poetry exists to give us language where we have none.

Poetry demands that we feel instead of think, to sit in questions rather than rush for answers. It asks that we recognise no two people live in the world in the same way, the same poem can mean vastly different things to different people and neither meaning is “wrong” or “right”.

Poetry demands that we examine all the contradictions, even the ones within ourselves. We cannot hate without the capacity for love, we cannot grieve if we do not feel joy, and we cannot build if we do not first tear down.’

Revising for the Mid-Year Exam

Exam Meme

Hola all! It’s the fourth day of Pre-U Sem and Student Leaders Training, so more than a few of us should be beginning our revision for the Mid-Year Examination soon. You’ve probably heard your teachers repeat this ad nauseum already but it’s worth reiterating: the A-levels are not the same as the O-levels or your IP exams. Some of your old habits, whether in Literature or your other subjects, may already have haunted you in your various CAs. Whatever the case, let’s all start on a clean slate as we gear up for your first internal JC exam, and the A-level exam you will eventually take in November 2018!

Continue reading “Revising for the Mid-Year Exam”

The JC1 Mid-Year Exam

Dragon

Format

Duration
3 hours

  • We strongly recommend you spend 1 hr per section, using about 15 min for reading / planning and the remaining 45 to write the essay.
  • Going overboard (e.g. using 1 hr 30 min) will not be worth the extra marks you earn
  • Brief answers tend to be awarded very low marks (e.g. less than 6 marks); incomplete answers tend not to be in the top two bands (18 – 25 marks).

Continue reading “The JC1 Mid-Year Exam”

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ in an Age of Trump

The-Handmaids-Tale-book

There are perhaps parallels between Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel and the at-times senseless exercise of power (in both the public and private realms) in Measure for Measure, but what we cannot doubt is the portrayal of authoritarian regimes in both that allude to the age we live in.

Back in 1984, the main premise seemed — even to me — fairly outrageous. Would I be able to persuade readers that the United States had suffered a coup that had transformed an erstwhile liberal democracy into a literal-minded theocratic dictatorship? In the book, the Constitution and Congress are no longer: The Republic of Gilead is built on a foundation of the 17th-century Puritan roots that have always lain beneath the modern-day America we thought we knew.

Read the full essay by Atwood on The New York Times website.

Purpose of ‘La Mian’ in Your Words

la-mian-2s

Here are your thoughts on the purpose of ‘La Mian in Melbourne’ from the personal angle. I enjoyed reading all of them at relative leisure after the lecture, particularly those that managed to weave the themes of identity, memory and family / tradition all together. Your responses as a collective certainly address how memory is sometimes our sole ‘sanctuary’ when it comes to the people and places we love, and that these memories are contained in objects, places and things. To digress a little, I certainly hope Eunoia will be the same fountain of memories that your old school is for you today (yin shui si yuan, and everything). If what you want to see are metal buttons and blue pinafores, head here.

Many of the statements you find below highlight the relevant concerns, and I’ve bolded a few that I think more directly address purpose – that the poem does something (laments, speaks of, serves to remind, expresses) and has something to say, above describing what occurs within the poem. Continue reading “Purpose of ‘La Mian’ in Your Words”

Thoughts on ‘Buzzcut Season’

lorde-team

On song choice

In crafting today’s lecture, I went searching for something more contemporary like Anohni, Solange, maybe even Sia for us to pick apart but I returned to Lorde, whose lyrics  were no less accessible than the three listed artistes, no less socially conscious than the first, and no less evocative or scream-worthy than the latter two. The more prominent single ‘Royals’ was the basis of an introduction lecture a few years back (Memory! All alone in the moonlight!) and would recount a similar adolescent struggle with socio-economic class, media-inspired fantasy (here about celebrity and luxury) and an attempt, futile as it may be, at self-consolation – of being your own ‘ruler’ in your imaginary world.

The parallels between ‘Royals’ and ‘Buzzcut Season’ are drawn easily, even as the latter edges toward the more complex lines drawn between reality and simulation, the world as it is and the bubble that we sometimes isolate ourselves in. These lines, as noted in today’s reference to good boy Spicy, are harder to see. We could argue that fact and fiction are not just indistinguishable, but that fiction has come to subvert fact and fact is in permanent retreat.

On universality and ambiguity

‘Buzzcut Season’ makes no explicit reference to our context, because by the laws of time and space, it cannot. Its allusions to ‘men on the news’ and ‘explosions on TV’ are vague enough to refer to any context – the war on Iraq, the annexing of Crimea, or the lone-wolf terrorist attacks that turn up on our front pages. By that vagueness they acquire universality – it is the reader who puts together his or her knowledge of the world (see examples above), recovers his or her reaction to those events (e.g. despair, dejection) and finally connects to the persona’s abandonment, rejection or desire to escape from grim reality. This grimness stretches into the persona’s personal reality, starting from the image of constricted spaces (‘we ride the bus with the knees pulled in’) and ending on the revulsion towards expired ‘cola with the burnt-out taste’.

I think it is fair to say that the song, as one student aptly put it, leaves you with more questions than answers. What’s wrong with this ‘home’ the persona does not want to go back to? What really is this ‘hologram’ she is talking about? Place what call? And what’s so laughable about losing your hair or choosing to lose your hair in any case? The title of the song, ‘Buzzcut Season’ itself challenges our familiar conception of pop – sure, it could literally mean that many people are getting their heads shaved, probably in summer when it’s hot, but does it really make obvious its meaning in the same way, say, ‘I Don’t Wanna Live Forever’ does?

[Complete digression: the aforementioned song actually answers its own question. What is happening to you? Uh, you’re feeling crazy, you just told me this three lines earlier and a few more lines down!]

Like most of the poetry that we will encounter, ‘Buzzcut Season’ avoids the straightforward declarations of emotion and demands that you read and hear the teenage angst that pours out from its exclusion of ‘People‘ and ‘They‘, the wilfulness of ‘I’ll never go’ and ‘Shut my eyes…., and the self-justification of ‘But it’s so easy’ and ‘So now we live…’ None of the underlined words scream out their respective effects; it is the reader who analyses and interprets them.

 

On becoming a seasoned reader
What I am really trying to say is that it is OKAY to struggle in your first, second or even third reading of ‘Buzzcut Season’. The ambiguity, and universality, of the lyrics may be challenging at first, but these same qualities make it a rich text for you to make your own meaning of it… with reasoned analysis, lest we forget.

Despite the initial apprehension and lack of confidence, we were better placed in the second half of the lecture to claw at the song’s many possible ideas. Moving around, I saw that many of you had a clear sense of what you wanted to discuss, armed with a smattering of words drawn from the song itself. Just so you don’t feel alone, here are some struggles (again, perfectly normal!) that you faced:

  • Feeling stuck at lines / stanzas you did not understand… or immediately understand
  • Not knowing what to do after selecting one line, or one word of evidence
  • Being lost when it came to ‘effects’, especially abstract qualities (e.g. surreal) and feelings (e.g. disillusionment)

These ‘issues’ are common and I dare say central to facing the Unseen poetry, prose and drama components across the two papers. In the next few weeks, you will learn to overcome these struggles by:

  • Leaving aside certain lines and coming back to them later
    – There will always be parts of the text that are obscure to you. Keep reading, form a ‘big picture’ (i.e. how does the persona feel in general about reality?), and then go back to the part you were stuck at. Does it cohere? Is its effect or meaning the same?
  • Identifying patterns
    – You will be able to locate lines, words and images that are similar to the point you are already making (e.g. ‘explosions on TV’ and ‘men on the news’ go together)
    – Looking back, I wish I had emphasised that structures recur whether you are studying a geometric series in Math or a poem made out of words and lines. Some of you may have spotted the contrast in the slides themselves: each stanza would appear to be divided into a portrayal of depressing reality and a retreat into fantasy, with the third line always starting on a point of rejection (‘shut’, ‘but’, ‘so’). Spot one thing? Go spot some more.
  • Evaluating effects by questioning
    – We naturally approach foreign ideas by connecting them to familiar ones. The ‘bus’ might remind you of a ‘refugee bus’ or a ‘concentration camp’. The questions to ask yourself then could include, ‘how would refugees in this bus feel?’ (e.g. Deprived? Dehumanised? Despairing?) or ‘how would I describe a concentration camp’? (e.g. Cruel? Inhumane? Pathetic?).
    – When lines seem neutral and unremarkable, we could try reading them aloud, or in our heads, a few times. A line such as ‘People should see how we’re living’ can slowly reveal itself to be indignant, disgruntled and maybe self-pitying especially if we play up the distance between ‘People’ and ‘we’re’, or if we read ‘should’ with mighty gusto (umm, you SHOULD!)
  • If it’s repeated, it’s important. If it’s at the start, it’s important. If it’s at the end, it’s important.
    – I did hear groans (which speak positively of a desire to know) during the few minutes I gave you to discuss what the song was about. The first stanza is set up to bewilder, and the concept of a ‘buzzcut season’ is hardly familiar. Reading further down, the images of reality do lay down a few ideas. It is not until the chorus – meant to be repeated, meant to be read as the closing lines – that the song lets us in on the separation from home, and the movement towards a ‘hologram’, ‘hyper-real’ world full of ‘make-believe’. These three quotations are repeated, and they effectively repeat each other in meaning and content. Would it be fair to surmise that the song is about this hyper-reality, this make-believe world of ‘play(ing) along’? Of course. You need to run along and keep running until you find… a quotation, a ‘favourite friend’ of that quotation, and more company.

Too long; didn’t read
We read, and we learn. Some of the above points might come naturally to some of us, we might have been explicitly taught some of them, but whatever the case, know that we are all learning. What is valuable to us is to admit to what we are not sure about because we can’t know everything. We can choose to confront the ‘explosions’, the loss, the ugly reality of our lives, or we can – it’s easier than it seems – swim in false notions of comfort that ‘goes’ as easily as it comes.

Measure for Measure: Starter Guide

Welcome! You have arrived here because you are intrigued by (and perhaps inspired too) the study of Literature in English at ‘A’ Level in Eunoia Junior College. As part of our JC1 syllabus, we will be undertaking Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare in Paper 1 (the core paper), and Alan Ayckbourn’s Woman in Mind together with Edward Albee’s seminal Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in Paper 3 (the elective paper).

We are in the midst of purchasing the physical copies of the above texts for our first cohort, and we ask you to be patient. The Heinemann [Book Depository link] edition of Measure for Measure is available only upon order from the UK. Shipping takes time, but we think it’s worth the time: the Heinemann edition provides a very detailed translation of Shakespeare’s Early Modern English to contemporary English on every facing page, and clues the reader in further with probing questions and short insights into the theatrical / performative aspects of the text. For ease of reference during our seminars and tutorials (i.e. ‘let’s flip to page 104, class’), we recommend you purchase the Heinemann edition as your study copy and exam copy.

measure-heinemannExhibit A: the currently elusive Heinemann edition, whose presence we ceaselessly yearn.

We sense from your emails and phone calls (or that from your parents :P) great eagerness to read ahead of time and get to grips with this challenging yet rewarding text. What can you do in the meantime then? Here are some suggestions:

  • Read the soft copies available online, linked below, to save your money for the Heinemann edition. We will try to make the latter available through other means as soon as we can:- Download the PDF of the Folger edition
    – Refer to the online MIT e-text
  • Purchase the following ‘alternative’ editions from stores or anywhere you can find it. They are ranked in descending order of recommendation:- New Cambridge Shakespeare: comprehensive footnotes, annotation-friendly
    Penguin: reasonably priced, available at Kinokuniya, not much space for annotation
    Oxford Shakespeare: reasonably priced, should be available at Kinokuniya
    Norton: the most scholarly and most expensive edition; very unfriendly thoughWe do not recommend the Signet, Classics Library or Folger editions, which may be cheaper and are worth only the pennies you pay (i.e. not very much value at all).Also, a word of caution! Assessment for Literature in English at ‘A’ Level, whether at H1 or H2 levels, takes an ‘open-book format‘, which means you may bring in your set texts. Some of you may want to purchase two copies of each text, one for exam use and one for study use. Regardless, you cannot write any notes in your exam text — more information on annotation of exam texts can be found here.

     

  • Read up the ‘basic’ guides on the text, before progressing to more academic criticism. Many a Literature tutor would frown upon students making use of the ‘popular’, American high school-focused study guides, but we do too. You should not need them by the middle of the year (partly because our notes will be pretty awesome). You should not be paraphrasing, adapting, or borrowing from them in your work because they exist on a mostly superficial, ‘unliterary level’ that covers plot, character and a hint of concerns (without the required analysis and personal response at ‘A’ Level).With the long, long disclaimer out of the way, they do have a place in your understanding of Measure for Measure. They can ease you into the events, characters and literal meaning of the play, so that you can encounter the text itself ready, and ready to pick apart its complexities.- The teachers will be making use of Penguin Teacher’s Guide, which we think is pegged closer to ‘A’ Level. The long commentary by Peter Cash also deserves mention.- The most ‘accessible’ guide on the play’s themes is on LitCharts. The CliffNotes site does have a decent character analysis section that lays on the table the various perspectives of Isabella, Angelo, Duke, Claudio, et al. We figure you’ll visit the above two sites on your own anyway…

    – Once you think you’re equipped to go deeper into the text’s methods and concerns, you should head over to our very rich Articles page for secondary literature (i.e. criticism, commentary) on Measure for Measure. Ask us personally for the password, which should be easy to remember once you remember who your Lit tutors will be (hint hint).

OK, this has been a long enough post! Enjoy reading up in the meantime!

Literature and the other

What literature does is incorporate the other in all its quirks and peculiarities into the social body. It allows for difference, and often even proclaims it to be genius. It considers difference a sign of courage: the hero is who he chooses to be. Or he fights for his freedom, his ideas, or his aesthetic, as does James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Amanda Michalopoulou, excerpted in The Guardian