Pre-U and I: reflections on Paper 4

Having written in our June edition about teaching the Paper 4 Texts, Dr Sander Berg here reflects on the Topics. 

Last year marked the tenth year of my teaching the Pre-U syllabus and I have always had the good fortune to teach Paper 4, either the topic or the set text and sometimes both.

When the Pre-U first started, I taught the República española y guerra civil through Sender’s Réquiem and ¡Ay Carmela! I really liked the third title too: Rodoreda’s La plaza del diamante. In fact, I think it is a better novel than Sender’s, but I feared the pupils might get bogged down. We spent a lot of time studying the period through a variety of films and texts, including Loach’s Land and Freedom, Ivens’s Spanish Earth, Cuerda’s La lengua de las mariposas and songs like Si me quieres escribir and En la plaza de mi pueblo.

libro-las-venas-abiertas-de-america-latinaeduardo-galeanoI took a similar approach to América Latina: justicia y opresión and used the topic as a springboard to teach pupils about the Conquest of the Americas and then fast-forwarded to the twentieth century and issues surrounding injustice. We watched and analysed the set films También la lluvia and Diarios de motocicleta, which I supplemented with other texts and films: an entry from Columbus’ diary, a chapter from Bartolomé de las Casas’s Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias, Montesinos’s sermon referred to in También la lluvia, an excerpt from Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s Conquest of New Spain, an entry from Domitila Chúngara’s diary Si me permiten hablar, passages from Mariátegui’s Siete ensayos, an extensive summary of Galeano’s Las venas abiertas de América Latina, an article by Hobsbawn about Che Guevara as well as newspaper articles about the Guerra del Agua in Cochabamba and interviews with the directors Walter Salles and Icíar Bollaín. Later in the year, we studied the political poems by Neruda, as well as a selection of his love poetry. Since we run a Sixth-Form trip to Cuba, we also watched Soy Cuba, that magnificent Soviet propaganda film, as well as Soderbergh’s Che: Part One, tying in beautifully with the topic.

For a number of years I also taught El cine de Pedro Almodóvar. Instead of using the films as a vehicle to discuss Spanish history and politics, I focused much more on forensically dissecting those wonderful works of cinema and discovered that pupils really enjoy this. For nearly all of them, it is the first time they treat a film as if it were a literary text, and you can see the scales falling from their eyes when they spot, for instance,benigno hable con ella that in Hable con ella we see Benigno standing next to his mother’s wedding photograph, which has been torn in half so that his father is missing, exactly as we have it in Todo sobre mi madre, where Esteban remarks that all his mother’s photos are missing exactly what has been missing from his life: his father (No quise decírselo, pero a mi vida le falta ese mismo trozo).

One may wonder where I get the time to do all this. The answer lies in how we organise our Spanish teaching. In the Sixth Form, one of the teachers focuses exclusively on language – grammar, reading, discursive essays, listening, vocab tests – while the other teaches the topic in the Lower Sixth and literature in the Upper Sixth.

A good topic, in my mind, is a set of texts and films that coalesce around a theme or a period and provide ample opportunity for exploration, either in breadth, as I have done with the Civil War and Latin America, or in depth, as was the case for Almodóvar. As a teacher I am usually less attracted to very broad topics unless I like the texts enough to focus on each individually and then draw the strands together at the end. I remember doing this in French: we read Colette’s Le blé en herbe, Romain Gary’s La vie devant soi and watched Toto le héros, all loosely united by the theme of youth and adolescence. What the lessons lacked in focus, they made up by offering the pupils a broader literary experience. This year I decided to teach La mujer en el mundo hispano and have started recycling some old material on the Civil War and will move on to ETA and, if we have time, the Mexican Revolution.

Because we teach the topic in Year 12, and because not all pupils have the required level to deal with more demanding literary texts within the topics, in Spanish (more so than in French) I often feel I must – a regañadientes – abandon some of the more interesting choices. A case in point was Rodoreda’s La plaza del diamante, but I would also have hesitated to read Cela’s La colmena or Arguedas’ Los ríos profundos in the Lower Sixth, even though I think they are excellent texts.

Ideally, I study all three titles of the topic, but I have found that pupils often tend to revise for just two titles in the run-up to the exam, and when they have the choice of two films over one film and one text or set of poems, they will all go for that, even the more literary minded pupils. They simply see it as less work. The second year in which I taught América Latina with a weaker group I focused on the films, although we read some of Neruda’s poems too.

On the whole, the syllabus’ range of topics and accompanying texts and films has been good. The lists often contain texts and films with which I am unfamiliar, but to me that is an invitation to read and explore. If there were only evergreens on offer – I am thinking about Lorca, Réquiem, El coronel no tiene quien le escriba, Las bicicletas son para el verano, etc. – it would soon start feeling like groundhog day. One potential issue with less obvious choices is availability, although one can generally source these works through Spain (e.g. the Fnac or Corte Inglés websites – Cambridge can advise).

bunuel perro andaluz

And finally, there are also some lovely texts and films that I hope will one day be on the syllabus. Examples are Carrasco’s Intemperie or films like Biutiful, Machuca or perhaps a selection of Buñuel’s work. That is why I hope there will be many years of Paper 4 and many more excellent and exciting topics to come.