An action plan for teaching ‘A Christmas Carol’
03 Nov 2017
“Foggier yet, and colder! Piercing, searching, biting cold.”
Charles Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol’
There is always an element of “Bah, humbug” about this week. Back to work blues is combined with the unwelcome clock rewind, and the apparent colour of choice being an encompassing and rather depressing black. Ahead lies a long half term: who needs day light any more?
Nevertheless, as Marley would quip: “It is required of every man that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men”. To begin to make a Scrooge style transition: there are glimmers of hope. One is Liam Gallagher’s new solo album, but this may not be the right audience for that one. The other, slightly more educational one, is teaching ‘A Christmas Carol’ again to my Year 10 group. They are a low set group of twenty delightful young people (most of the time!) With a busy half term ahead I am trying to get myself as organised as possible for the next eight weeks. An action plan for teaching the novel is required.
A starting point was to look at the feedback from the exam board last year, for our students the WJEC Eduqas exam board. For their exam they are given extract to explore and in forty five minutes expected to make wider reference to the text in general, while linking to context. Last year’s question asked students to explore the role of the ghosts in the novel. Some key points for me to think about with this group:
- “At the lower end, there was a tendency towards unfocused narrative“
- “Context, on the whole, was handled well. Inevitably, there were examples where it was practically absent, poorly understood or included as a stand-alone bolt-on.”
- Some responses were unbalanced with those that did not use the wider text losing marks
- “The text was well used to track the presentation of the various ghosts though this inevitably led to some weaker narrative approaches that were thin in terms of detail and a number of candidates got confused in terms of the ghosts’ order, appearance and impact.”
My concern with this weaker group is that they will end up falling into some of these traps. Then there are also the various other challenges that this text presents: the difficulty of the language; the number of characters; the complexity of some of the thematic concepts.
Ideally over the next eight weeks I want them to have a good grasp of characters and plot and to make sure they can confidently approach an extract.
Knowledge of plot and learning key quotations. I wrote this ‘The Ghost of Memory: Revision and Retention for ‘A Christmas Carol’ when preparing my Year 11 students for the exam earlier in the year. There is lots in it I will be using, particularly the focus on starting lessons with ‘The Ghost of Memory’: a quiz that tests students knowledge of the novel so far. The class know that they come into the room and answer these questions immediately. They will get increasingly challenging as the term goes on, interleaving various elements of the novel. This will be Monday’s lesson:
- What is the significance of “secret and self-contained and solitary as an oyster”
- How would you describe the relationship between Scrooge and his nephew?
- What words can you use to describe Scrooge so far in the novel?
- How did Scrooge respond to the requests for money for the poor?
- From your research what context has been explored so far in the novel?
We will also be generating: ‘Stave in Ten’ revision guides. I have done the first Stave for them as a model. The idea is to simplify the events of the novel for them as far as possible, into ten key sentences and ten key quotations from each stave. This will also help them to track the structure and development of the key characters throughout the novel. This is the example for Stave One:
- Background on death of Marley – Scrooge’s business partner.
- Background about Scrooge – cold, greedy and selfish.
- Contrast between Scrooge and Fred (Scrooge’s nephew) introduced.
- Scrooge refuses Fred’s offer of Christmas.
- Scrooge refuses to give money to the poor.
- Scrooge complains about Bob Crotchet taking the day off.
- Scrooge alone on Christmas eve.
- The visitation of Marley’s ghost.
- Marley’s ghost warns Scrooge about his need for change.
- Scrooge informed that the three ghosts will be visiting him.
- “Marley was dead to begin with”
- “tight-fisted hand at the grindstone”
- “as solitary as an oyster”
- “Bah! Humbug!”
- “Why did you get married?”
- “Decrease the surplus population”
- “I wear the chain I forged in life”
- “Speak comfort to me Jacob!”
- “You will be haunted by three spirits”
- “The air was filled with phantoms”
Students will be responsible for creating their own for each stave in for the rest of the novel. The process of doing this active revision and recall of each stave will hopefully help them to retain important points.
While the ‘Stave in Ten’ will end up familiarising them with fifty quotations throughout the novel, I also want them to have a top twenty quotations from the novel that they will focus on learning (cunningly named A Christmas Twenty). The students have this stuck in the back of their books and we will be annotating the quotations as we arrive at them in the novel. They will then learn the quotations and the language analysis points they make for revision.
Finally, students will have to pass a ‘Christmas Cracker’ exit question to leave the lesson. This will be a key question related to the plot or context in the novel, or the requirement to give one of the key quotations for the stave.
This week the students have gone away to complete some research on Victorian society. This will be shared with my ‘Context in Ten’ revision guide for them (Context in Ten). These are the ten important aspects of context that I want them to try and apply to their analysis of the novel.
This is combined with the following key phrases that we will repeat in lessons and in their writing.
- Contextually this is significant because…
- This embodies Victorian attitudes to…
- Dickens employs this to make a comment about…
- Arguably Dickens is using this as a means to…
- Victorian society is encapsulated here in…
One of the self-assessment strategies they will use after each piece of weekly writing will be to highlight the links they have made to context in yellow, providing a visual reminder for them to link to the background of the novel. Importantly we will look at how to make sure the links they make to context are relevant to the question.
For the next six weeks students will complete one extract style question a week. This will be a thirty minute task that encourages them to do all the elements of the mark scheme. These are the six extract questions they will complete: Six extract questions.
Another aspect of this will be to use the SCROOGE acronym that I encouraged my Year 11 group to use last year. This helps to break down the mark scheme for them by repeating key questions. Frequently reminding students of this will hopefully encourage them to reflect on using them in their own writing:
- Structure (Have I explored the structure of the novel? Have I linked to how the characters/theme has developed?)
- Chronological order (Have I worked through the novel in chronological order? Have I arrived at the extract in the order of the novel? Have I explored why this is important?)
- Relate to context (Have I included relevant parts of context?)
- Overview (Have I started my response with an overview about the character or theme?)
- Oh Dickens (Have I used Dickens throughout my answer?)
- Go to words and methods (Have I picked out the impact of language and words in my answer? Am I highlighting the techniques Dickens has used?)
- Evidence (Have I built in quotations I have learnt throughout each paragraph?)
Each week I will remove some of the scaffolding for the task, until by the last couple of weeks they will have no support. This week we went through the extract in detail together, I shared this model paragraph which we deconstructed:
Scrooge is presented in the opening as a selfish, greedy and materialistic individual. In the opening of the extract this is clear in his argument with Bob Cratchit: “It is not convenient, said Scrooge, and it’s not fair”. This demonstrates Scrooge’s lack of compassion and understanding of others, the word “convenient” showing how he is reluctant to give his hard working clerk time off to be with his family. This lack of empathy is then further presented when he “walked out with a growl”. The verb “growl” further shows how much Scrooge dislikes anyone who he comes into contact with, his cold and unwelcoming nature.
I then set them up with the writing by having the following key sentences on the board to guide their writing:
- Dickens presents Scrooge as…
- This links to Victorian society because…
- Scrooge is clearly a…
- The use of the word…
- Readers can see that…
- Contextually this is important because…
The planning for the rest of the week is simple: we read the novel up until the extract, we do lots of mini quizzing and quotation learning and work on writing practise paragraphs. Exploration of language will also be an important aspect, looking at building up their understanding of the challenging language. Hopefully they will also enjoy the terrifying journey Scrooge goes on!
There is something to be said in Henry Ford’s famous quotation: “I would like to communicate with others the calmness that the long view of life gives us”. Having this sense of direction and clarity over the next few weeks with this group is reassuring, particularly when I know how challenging they are going to find the novel. Plus, if we are being honest, it is far too dark to go outside and engage with the world (although have no fear, as Liam would say: “Some might say we will find a brighter day..”)
Thanks for reading.
There are some excellent posts on teaching the novel out there:
- Chris Curtis has written lots of excellent posts on the novel, they can be accessed here
- Susan Strachan has written an interesting post on religion in the novel.
- This from Alex Quigley is very useful in teaching vocabulary in the novel.