As a heads up before we get going, I just want to say that my name’s Lauran and I am a life-long amateur historian. As a child, I memorised the entire Royal lineage of the UK and was obsessed with the History channel (I can still be found watching it when the house is empty. What can I say? I love a documentary!). I took History at GCSE, A Level and Degree and honestly, sometimes I wonder if I’m teaching the right subject.
The thing I love about English is that the historical bit of my brain doesn’t go to waste; I can use my knowledge for context and I LOVE scrolling through JStor looking for articles to show my students. Despite this though, context is a problem.

Why is this? Context is often seen by students as that little bolt-on at the end of a response. You can almost hear their internal monologue saying “chuck a little bit in about the Victorians at the end…. aaaand I’m done!” as they write their name on it and hand it to you.

Firstly, I think part of the problem is that contextual factors, or for you fellow AQA’ers, AO3 aren’t weighted THAT heavily, so students (and maybe teachers?) focus less on it. I don’t think it needs to be weighted heavier, as I’m not testing a student’s historical knowledge, but I do think sometimes it’s easy as teachers to “bolt-on” the knowledge to students too.

Secondly, some of the knowledge that students add to essays is incredibly generic. Take for example the recent fabulous Tweet-stream by @GCSE_Macbeth FINALLY discussing the fact that Lady Macbeth is absolutely a normal Jacobean fear and not, as she’s normally discussed, a complete psychopath who doesn’t love babies and who’s designed to shock us. Consider how many times you’ve read ‘Lady Macbeth was an aggressive woman and this was unusual’ or ‘Mr Birling was a Capitalist like lots of Edwardians’… the approach to AO3 can be so fluffy and doesn’t develop analysis. Similarly, AO3 isn’t just about knowing and remembering facts and dates, it’s about knowing the text as a construct.

Leading nicely into my third point, I think there needs to be a deep focus on the fact that texts are a product of their time. These aren’t 2018 books set in different eras: they’ve been written in, because of, for that audience, in that era. Macbeth was written for a Jacobean audience, not a 21st Century one (and even the actors at The Globe know this – I saw it there in 2016 and the Porter spoke about Donald Trump!). Students need to connect to this and view the text through that lens.

So how can we improve contextual writing?

This is tough, but here are a few strategies I use:

  • I know my eras. I research and study them, and I refresh the articles I use every time I teach the text. This stops me doling out generic phrases that I’ll only be annoyed by when marking essays later on.

  • Like a lot of teachers, I start with a context carousel. We look at a range of non-fiction sources about the text we’re studying and we argue about what they suggest. As we read the text, we revisit those articles and see if they take on new meaning. I’ve found these sources on a variety of sites but Google Books, the British Library website and JStor are worth their weight in gold (lots of schools have JStor accounts so check before you buy).

  • I blend context throughout the textual reading and deliberately withhold information. After reading The Carew Murder Case chapter, I follow it with the Punch articles about how Victorians loved to view murderers as much as they would exotic apes. This helps students see allusions and start to deeply connect the audience and era to the text. Keep contemporary opinions coming throughout their reading and give the students more to add to their writing.

  • I don’t dumb the context down. I think it’s important to show students’ a variety of sources ranging from satirical cartoons to essays.

  • I change sources as we go; one of my Year 10s wanted to know more about the reception of Jekyll and Hyde when it was released, so I found an article for the next lesson. It’s important not to fob them off with those quick generic answers which become quick generic sentences in their essays.

  • Model specific contextual knowledge in your writing for your class. My current Y10s love me doing their assessments with them and actually, I love it too. I take care to specifically reference the contextual articles and arguments we’ve discussed in class so they realise how to embed this into their own too. I also really, really focus on embedding the context throughout the answer, not just chucking it on the end!

I know so many of you are approaching context in a fab way and I’d love to hear your views on how we can approach this for maximum impact!