How I’m Teaching… A Christmas Carol: Context and Pre-Reading.

Course: GCSE Literature

Target Group: Top set Year 10

Hang around on English EduTwitter for any length of time and the perennial topic of how to teach context will come up.

Broadly, positions can be grouped under those who teach context as a precursor to studying the text, priming students for the themes they about to encounter and those who dive straight into the text, using contextual detail to inform interpretations as they come up. I have sympathies with both approaches and try to adopt a blended approach: setting the scene before reading and developing detail as we study key aspects of the text.

Pre-teaching context allows students to build their understanding of where the text comes from and encounter key vocabulary. I think this is particularly important when studying a text that originates from a time or place that is far removed from our own. While we could argue that 19th century England holds some close parallels with the world today, there are also some key differences that take some mental effort to comprehend fully: the role of the Church in society, attitudes towards the poor and women, and the treatment of children to name but a few.

By introducing students to key aspects of the context, we help to minimise cognitive load by reducing the amount of information a student is wrestling with at any one time, making the text seem more familiar when they do encounter it and, at the same time, allowing students a chance to experience the joy of making links as we read. Of course, the initial discussions are designed only to provide a broad overview; more specific details will be introduced later, as they become relevant to our reading of the novella.

An even more pressing question than when to teach context lies in deciding what to include from the wealth of information available to us. I don’t think there is one correct answer to this and instead I subscribe to the general rule that if it adds to our interpretation of the text then it’s relevant. With that in mind, for A Christmas Carol I want my students to understand the following things:

  1. That a text is both moulded by and helps to transform its context.
  2. The societal changes Dickens witnessed through his life:
    1. The changing role of the family during the Industrial Revolution
    1. The worsening living conditions of the poor and rise of the middle classes
    1. The decline of religion and the advancement of Industry
    1. The increase in rates of literacy among the general populace
  3. The concept of philanthropy

The teaching points that follow were delivered over four lessons. Each of the main activities were bookended by lots of discussion, reinforcing the vocabulary we were exploring and building on our work developing academic discourse in the classroom.

1. A text is moulded by and helps to transform its context

While a knowledge of literary movements is not essential at GCSE, I think a broad understanding of how artistic trends follow each other and react to the world around them can be useful. It provides a handy thread that can wind all the way through a literature course, linking each of the texts together and giving students a foothold from which they can explore common themes or the differences between them.  Including this as part of context also prevents our lessons from becoming a study of History; it provides a hook that keeps drawing us back to what should be the central object of our study: the text.

I began introducing literary movements using one of the many excellent posters that can be found on a Google image search. By giving a brief outline of the historical context of each movement and explaining how each differs from the movement that precedes it, students are able to see how art can both be influenced by and influence the world around it. This is central to Dickens’ outlook and the political nature of much of his writing, so I think it’s worthwhile spending some time here.

Discussing literature’s ability to change the world around it also nicely seeds some of the analysis I will be presenting to the class later in the module: Dickens’ preface in which he hopes ‘to raise the ghost of an idea’; the narrative perspective contributing to the novella’s function as an allegory; and the notion that each ghost’s part of the narrative acts as a separate parable within the main narrative arc, leading Scrooge to his eventual redemption.

 2. The societal changes Dickens witnessed through his life.

Discussing the influence of society on literary movements leads nicely into consideration of the context Dickens experienced growing up and throughout his career. The Industrial Revolution, mass migration of people from the countryside into rapidly growing cities, the Poor Laws, workhouses, fat cat capitalists and devastating poverty all feature heavily in Dickens’ writing and a working knowledge of these factors is essential in understanding his influences and intentions.

There are hundreds of websites that offer resources to help teaching these topics, so it pays to have a look around. For this module, I’ve used two resources that have helped students to gain an understanding of the context while building developing familiarity with the vocabulary of 19th Century literature.

First, we made use of the excellent British Library website to have a look at the conditions in a Victorian workhouse. We began the lesson with discussion around critical literacy, considering purpose and identifying perspective before the students logged on and accessed the satirical print available here (kindly shown to me by a colleague):

https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1868-0808-11157

Allowing students to explore the document on computers gave them the opportunity to zoom in and out, collecting detail and discussing their impressions of the source.

I usually approach independent or discovery learning type tasks with healthy scepticism and didn’t believe this was the right point in the scheme to introduce completely independent learning. The students were only just beginning to explore the domain, so their work was guided by a set of questions and their understanding checked through directed discussion after the task.

The second resource is a favourite of mine: I really enjoy the School of Life videos on YouTube and their Dickens video is an excellent example:

The video addresses some of the key contextual factors of the 19th Century while making sure everything links back to Dickens’ writing and what he intended his work to achieve. Again, I didn’t want to rely on students guessing which details were most important, so they were given a set of questions to answer as they watched the video. Some of the questions directed them to the key information they need to know, while a few provided the opportunity for short answers, helping the task to feel more manageable while the students were completing it.

  • The concept of philanthropy.

Often, I find that students have a two-dimensional understanding of contextual factors. For example, they absorbinformation about the treatment of poor people in the 19th century and apply that knowledge with a broad brush to everybody who lived at the time. Developing a nuanced understanding of a text and the context that surrounds it is key to producing a mature interpretation, so in this module I have tried to balance out the misanthropic social changes with an understanding of the philanthropy that informed Dickens’ works. As a bonus, considering philanthropy now provides a great hook for exploring the emotive imagery of Stave One with its charity collectors, Scrooge’s ‘humbug’ and ‘misanthropic ice’.

Beginning with the question ‘How far are we responsible for other people in society?’, our discussion led on to the definition and etymology of the term philanthropy. We explored the ways in which a person may behave philanthropically; giving their time, money or voice to a cause and again, linked this back to Dickens’ aspirations for his writing.

What next?

While these lessons have given my class a basic understanding of how context may have contributed to the creation of A Christmas Carol, it isn’t until we dive into the text that it will truly come to life.

Context will be a key part of our future lessons, recapping the knowledge we have already gained while developing detail in support of our analysis.

Before we get to that though, we are going to experience the text as Dickens intended and simply read for pleasure!

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