The Last of ‘Of Mice and Men’

I have just completed marking a school [centre] of a largish number of GCSE English Literature responses on my paper. That’s two essays each on respectively a chosen prose/play and then prose context question.

I mark an H tier paper, so that is notional D to A* grades, or as it is now in actual marking on scripts, levels 2 to 6. I of course have no idea specifically, but my school is quite likely a ‘bog-standard’ comprehensive [and I ape the term from a while back ironically, and sneeringly], and most likely an academy though this accounts for little. All of the students have responded to, respectively, questions on An Inspector Calls and Of Mice and Men.

And it has been wonderful.

The H tier, I acknowledge, targets a certain level of ability [and thus fits into that C/D pass/fail dichotomy to a degree – see previous here and here] and there is an implicit level of competence. For me, it is so much more than this. The students from this one school – replicated up and down the country – to a person write clearly and well and knowingly and convincingly and empathetically and very often exceptionally. At the ‘business’ end [we apply SPaG] they are all eminently readable and accurate, and at the ‘meaning’ end/level are engaged and informed and bright and unbelievably able to say the same kinds of things [how could you not when answering the same questions on the same texts?] in so many differing and nuanced and, yes again, knowing ways. It is phenomenal.

And I love it.

In reference to the two previous posts I have linked immediate above, I am writing this to once again dispel anyone’s belief that GCSE exams – this one certainly – are designed to fail students. Every single one of the 171 scripts I have marked have demonstrated the students’ ability to convey their knowing of and engagement with the texts they have read and studied. The nature of testing does, of course, assert its parameters – the question setting has a focus – but I think it would be at best churlish and at worst obnoxious to argue that this is in any way designed to limit or penalise or diminish in any way the student responses. But I’ll leave that there.

As the final year in which American texts can be responded to in such GCSE English Literature examinations, and in this centre’s case Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, I have been particularly aware of the continued way in which this one text appeals so perfectly to students as readers, understanders, appreciators and responders. This year’s context on the final scene between George and Lennie [spoiler alert in the unlikely event anyone reading this hasn’t read the ending of the novella!] and George’s killing of Lennie has prompted in so many ways the most emotive of empathetic responses. This is naturally the informed response to the power of Steinbeck’s writing. But there is an added puissance to that whole engagement knowing this is the last time there will be such responses.

Considering the quality of responses I have been outlining from this one school – itself a microcosm of all schools, and I couldn’t resist – the quality will be sustained over future years with other texts because it is the teaching and learning and student responses that prevails.

I have written elsewhere [not on this blog] about the intrusion of the literacy strategy on the way students have been taught to write about texts, but I haven’t seen this from this school. The Of Mice and Men context could lend itself to a proliferation of references to ‘pathetic fallacy’, but I have only seen one, thank goodness. And in light of the recent KS2 English GPS tests, I was amused today to read one candidate refer – oddly – to the coordinating conjunction ‘But’ [that is an intrusion from afar at this level now, but one fears for a few years down the line…] yet this again has been an absolute aberration.

This is a celebration of an examination I have enjoyed marking for probably 30 years. There have been changes in Specification, and I started on what was called the Generic paper so open questions asked on any text and tested at all levels, and I have throughout that entire time never ceased to be privileged to read the work of this country’s students. And to feel that as an examiner, and working within the teacher-led spirit of this GCSE, I have been able to reward the students’ responses to the best of their ability and the best of mine within a terminal exam framework that was never my first choice.

As the examination goes online, and for other reasons, I may not be continuing. So I look forward to the other centres I am yet to mark this year.

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2 thoughts on “The Last of ‘Of Mice and Men’

  1. I feel exactly the same about my OMAM responses. It is a sad reflection of the current system that this will be the last year. A real kiss to teachers and students alike. RIP Lennie and George.

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