Friday, 28 July 2017

Talking about A-Levels - English and French

OK, I'm trying my hardest to resist the urge to say 'WELCOME BACK!!!' at the beginning of this post so you don't think that I've completely lost my mind or just devoured a half a kilo bag of sweets (a quantity which I've yet to see being sold in supermarkets, btw). Nonetheless, I can't shrug off the feeling that it has indeed been a VERY long time since I posted my last entry here which, like accidentally forgetting to feed my cats, strikes me as being extremely neglectful and uncaring towards my blogging duties.

Well, in case you have been wondering (or, rather morel likely, forgotten that this blog even existed in the first place!), I haven't been spending the past six months or so hooked to Netflix (although I can firmly say that 2017 has marked the year when Netflix has become an indispensable component of my life!). In fact, I've been devoting a rather large portion of my time to other duties which, for the next year, will remain in my list of priorities - or, actually, the main priority of my life until around the end of June 2018. 

Oh yes, this post could not be exempt from mentioning the 'A' word - and I'm not even referring to Pretty Little Liars! Indeed, I can attribute literally everything going on in my life (including my fervent admiration for Lidl's triple chocolate chip cookies which never cease to melt my occasional frustration away) to the callous beast which thousands of teenagers across the country are currently experiencing: A-levels. 

Before you leap into the nearest cupboard or underneath your bed in spine-tingling fear (which I've successfully avoided doing all year, in spite of enduring utter panic upon realising the deadline for Media coursework on which I'll elaborate later on), let's remember that A-levels cannot be in any shape or form compared to other occupations or responsibilities that some people take on. Undoubtedly, I've experienced stressful moments over the course of the past year - which needn't come as a surprise considering that memes by the A-level Problems Facebook page constantly torment me on an almost daily basis! - but anyone will be hard-pressed to find anything which doesn't contain the slightest amount of stress. Therefore, when I am cramming as many sociologists' names as well as revising poems by John Keats (including one which is 500 lines long) the night before I sit my A-level exams next June, I truly will attempt to bear these facts in mind, if my mind is even operating at all!

Anyway, for those who are starting their A-levels in September, I suppose that my advice is to keep things in perspective (or 'prendre du recul' if you have the courage - for which I will fall at your feet to praise you - to study French!) during your time in sixth form/college. Although you will certainly experience moments when it seems that the piles of homework are relentless (thus making the 'homework' timetable at my previous school as easy as attending play-group - which GCSEs should definitely not be compared to!), the first year of sixth form - otherwise known as Year 12 - will fly past quite quickly. I mean, it must have, otherwise I wouldn't now be forcing myself to not even think about going into Year 13 in September, the prospect of which terrifies me more than the idea sacrificing Lidl's cookies from my life for an entire year (as you will discover, I am pretty grateful for cookies getting me through Year 12!).

Therefore, given that half of my sixth form mission is completed now that the summer holidays have officially started - even though my enthusiasm is probably not as strong as I would like thanks to the boiler breaking down (meaning that there is NO hot water - just perfect for a shower-loving individual like myself!) - it is time for me to look back over this past year and, for those who are heading into Year 13 like me or are about to commence their A-level studies, I'll offer some tips to ensure your survival!

Before the journey began

Prior to starting my A-levels, I had attended a comprehensive mixed-sex academy for around 18 months so, to be honest, I hadn't really had a lot of time to get settled there compared to most of the other students in my year, most of whom had attended the school since the beginning of Year 7. However, my previous school did not even offer French - a subject that I adore whole-heartedly (though let's avoid mentioning the awful English translation I had to do in my AS exam last month!) - which convinced all the more to look elsewhere for studying my A-levels. 

Also, I would have only been allowed to study three A-levels which, despite seeming 'easier' on paper as well as becoming common practice within many sixth forms following the recent A-level reforms (once more another sarcastic 'thank you' in the direction of the hideously smug Michael Gove), I feel would have limited me. Why? On reflection, I realise that I am capable of studying four AS subjects, which I hope will prepare me all the more for the harder standard of study that I will face in Year 13. Although I can't really try to imagine how I would be feeling had I stayed at my previous school's sixth form, I'm quite confident in admitting that I feel better prepared for next year thanks to moving to my current school, which should hopefully make all the difference over the upcoming year. 

Let's skip ahead to results day last year - despite facing disruption in my classes in addition to having to learn the syllabus myself in several of my subjects (ahem, Sociology and Religious Studies), I achieved 3A*, 4A and 2B. Not bad, though unsurprisingly I did curse Edexcel's name quite a bit upon discovering that, had I sat my Maths exam a year beforehand, I would have achieved an A due to the difference in grade boundaries. Nonetheless, my results landed me a place at my chosen sixth form, a girls-only grammar school, which only required 6Bs, to study A-levels in English Literature, French, Sociology and Media.

Over the course of the summer holidays last year, I kept wondering whether or not to swap Media for another subject, such as Psychology or Business Studies. Although I had no problem whatsoever with studying four AS subjects, I somewhat felt that there were not any subjects available which appealed enough to make me want to study them for the whole of Year 12. Part of me was interested in Psychology because, if I completely wanted to pursue a different career path, I would possibly want to become a counsellor given that so many people require the support of mental health services today. However, I would be lying if I denied my relief at deciding against this because I've since realised that Psychology is quite scientific which, following two years of utter torture in my Science lessons, I really couldn't cope with, while I would have to become up, close and personal with the much-abhorred Research Methods (already an absolute bore in my Sociology course)! As for Business, it was a half-baked idea which never got around to being fulfilled because, for starters, I have very little interest in business affairs; thus, why would I devote hours to studying for something which barely stimulates me? Consequently, I chose to study Media along with my other three options.

Year 12 Study

English Literature

Although I would struggle to select my favourite option out of the four subjects that I've studied over the past year if asked, it is possible that I could cite English as my most loved for these following reasons:

- Unlike my other subjects, English is quite relaxed because, instead of creating piles of notes (as is the case in Sociology), we simply annotate our books with points suggested by our teacher or fellow students in the class. 
- While it is utterly unacceptable to screw up a translation in French or mix up sociologists' names (a mere exaggeration!), English is open to a vast range of interpretations. As long as you justify your point with a quote, some analysis and maybe a critical opinion, anything pretty much goes in English, which is why I have found A-level English more stimulating and fascinating compared to GCSE because there is greater freedom with your analysis and personal thoughts. 
- Asides from a few dodgy poems in Poems of the Decade anthology (principally the Dover one which irritatingly appeared in my AS exam!), I have genuinely enjoyed all the novels and plays that my class have studied in Year 12, which include A Streetcar Named Desire, Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Mrs Dalloway
- Albeit a bit terrifying at first because such practice was uncommon at my previous school, I have grown to appreciate that essays are somewhat regularly assigned because, over the course of the year, I have become more confident in expressing my ideas as well as undertaking deeper analysis of characters, symbolism, etc. As a result, you could say that I've developed a love of writing essays (even if they take the best part of an entire Saturday to complete...)!
- Thanks to the red, flower and light imagery present in Streetcar, Dalloway and Streetcar respectively, I think that I've become quite an expert on the sexual connotations of blood, raspberries, pink dresses and paper lanterns. Not really mentioned in the sixth form prospectus, mind you, but surely there must be a practical use for all of these knowledge? 

Initially, I felt rather out of my depth in my English classes because, unlike my previous school, we actually annotate our books, which are given to us as personal copies. I know, it's utterly shocking that my old school - which seemed hell-bent on saving as much money as possible (despite its academy sponsor spending over a £1 million on a centre in France for some unfathomable reason!) - couldn't even give us copies of the books we were studying so we could make notes next to the key quotes. Before I started annotating my first English lit novel, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, part of me mourned the idea of having to 'ruin' the clean pages inside yet, almost one year on, I take pride in flicking through all of the books and plays that I've read by seeing the highlighted quotes and annotations which express the very depths of my imagination going wild with literary joy... In other words, if a book that you're studying at A-level is not annotated, you better sort it out!!!

In conclusion (definitely the best expression to use if concluding an essay instead of 'all in all' - a tip picked up from one of my two English teachers!), English Literature is definitely a challenge in the sense that you need to adapt to reading a variety of works. However, if you have an open mind and are genuinely thirsty for expandng your bookmad mind with even more dramas, poems and novels, don't be afraid to step out into the unknown!

French

For anyone who is currently studying A-level French, I am sure that you are fully aware of the fact that GCSE French was, to be quite blunt, an absolute joke. Hmm, maybe not the sort of joke that would have left you roaring with laughter (or rire aux √©clats) whilst trying to make sense of the illogical GCSE listening exam, but seriously, GCSE French was ridiculously easy compared to A-level. How people even dare to suggest that modern foreign languages at GCSE level are difficult have probably escaped the shock which greets us upon commencing our A-level studies in any language, let alone French!

When I talk about the 'shock' that initially was A-level French, I'm indeed referring to the greater amount of freedom - or libert√© - that one has with regard to expressing themselves in French. Let's face it, each controlled assessment completed during our GCSEs contained standard phrases, possibly half of which we barely understood; indeed, I'll admit that I didn't fully understand what ainsi que meant when I used in one of my CAs until several months ago. Although all Year 11s like to consider themselves to be oh-so-mature because they are sitting their 'major' exams - the all-important GCSEs, which are presented by schools as determining 'life' or 'death' (or, in my case, whether I was worthy enough of being treated with a bar of Reese's peanut butter cups after collecting my results) - any GCSE French students were spoon-fed. Like babies, we were nurtured with the precious A* expressions and piles of vocabulary lists from which we were forced to revise from, unless we wanted the Exam Gods to chuck us into a locked room within Hell or somewhere equally as sinister.

Moreover, I suppose that my shock was also not supported by the fact that everyone in my French class actually participated in conversations in French. While literally 80% of my classmates in my GCSE French classes couldn't express themselves beyond saying that 'je joue au football', my new French peers could confidently speak aloud in front of an entire class. Having missed out on this 'nurturing' at my previous school, I really couldn't help but feel insecure about my own French-speaking abilities - I mean, how would I be able to attain an ability on a par with the rest of my class, the majority of whom had enjoyed the advantage of being supported in such an aspirational envrionment for five years prior to sixth form? Thus, I did feel for the first few weeks that I would never get the hang of French at this advanced level, which I suppose wasn't helped by the fact that I was used to getting high-ish marks whilst studying the GCSE.

Nonetheless, my advice for prospective French students is this: ne abandonnez pas! As I've since realised, the first few weeks feel like you are drowning (albeit not literally!) in a massive pool overflowing with tons of new and somewhat intimidating vocabulary (se banaliser freaked the hell out of me at first) yet, as you adjust and appreciate that pretty much everybody else is experiencing this difficulty at the same time, you slowly pull yourself out of the ocean and onto a dry, secure and safe beach. No way am I at all suggesting that A-level French is as relaxing as lying on a beach - unless you're sitting the General Studies exam, no A-level should even be considered 'easy' (otherwise, how can you truly feel proud of all the work you devote to studying it?) - because you simply have to keep practising it yet, like any other A-level subject, you get used it.

One way in which j'ai pris de l'assurance (I have gained confidence - I really ought to stop mentioning this mind-boggling translations but, once you've adjusted to A-level French, it really is difficult to resist showing off your vocabulary!) is by visiting French websites almost on a daily basis, even if only for several minutes at a time. My favourites are Le Figaro which uses words that you should be able to recognise or at least get the gist of and Elle France (particularly any articles associated with celebrities interest me!). If you have Netflix, try to watch television shows with French subtitles - this tends to be available for Netflix's own programmes (such as 13 Reasons Why), but hopefully more shows and films will appear with the option to watch them in French. Personally, I'm not too keen on 'francophone' music - in fact, I much prefer Spanish music because it is generally more upbeat and similar to the club music which I like - but it may be of interest you. However, I do like Stromae, whose EDM tracks feature very thought-provoking music videos, though I'm sorry to admit that none of Daft Punk's nor David Guetta's music are in French!

Another piece of advice is that practice makes perfect. At the end of the day, nobody is going to care if you spend half an hour or longer relistening to a 2 minute-long audio extract on gay families because, if it helps you to become more focused and confident in the actual exam, you have to do what works best for yourself. And I'm not exaggerating about spending hours of my time listening to baffling listening exercises which, once I see the transcript, I understand - some people are naturally stronger at reading or listening exercises, so don't worry much about it!

Lastly, I feel like I have become a more confident speaker in general thanks to studying French because it has pushed me beyond my confident zone as I have grown accustomed to speaking in almost every lesson - a quality which is definitely priceless! Also, topics like family and crime overlap with units that I'm studying in Sociology - therefore, French is like revision for Sociology, except that I'm doing so in another language!


Anyway, I think that I'll finish this post here because I honestly don't want to make your head explode with gaining so much information about A-levels (and, to be honest, my fingers deserve a rest from the keyboard!). To clarify things, I will be continuing my English and French studies into Year 13 because, well, it's a no-brainer - I've actually decided to study the two subjects as a joints-honour degree at university, so there is no way that I would drop either of them! As subjects which look at the meaning of language (English) and how to use language (French), I feel that they are the perfect combination for me, hence why I'll be clinging onto them like a dog holds onto a bone!

Next time, I'll discuss my experiences with Sociology and Media (the latter of which should make for some interesting reading). So, you ask, does this mark my return to the Blogosphere? As someone who doesn't like to leave anything half-done (unless it involves finishing that bar of fruit and nut chocolate lying under my bed which I so don't want!), I suppose so! 

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