Recently, David Didau’s post here on a new curriculum for KS3 has got me thinking. I’m lucky to work in a school which gives me pretty much free reign on what I choose to teach, yet I have always artificially constrained myself: what texts are readily available in the cupboard? What texts have I studied before, and therefore know really well?
The more pressing question, which I’ve woken up to deplorably late, is what should students read in the course of their study of English?
At a wonderful weekend watching two plays at the Globe theatre, it occurred to me that although I felt my students were getting a lot out of studying Shakespeare, there were references in there that they didn’t get. Not only did they not get them, I wasn’t even planning on providing the core literary knowledge for them to ever get them.
With that in mind, I got to work writing, with my exceptional colleague, very many schemes of work of texts we think students should be know something about, particularly at KS3. One of the ones I’m especially excited about is The Odyssey, which I’m planning to teach year 9 next year.
The thing about classical literature is that students in some schools in the country are exposed to it from a young age as a matter of course. I don’t want to sound like a throwback, but while I do acknowledge that there are certainly more relevant courses for students’ development into outstanding citizens for our modern society, there is certainly a merit to studying ancient literature.
I was privileged enough to study Latin in school, and loved almost all of it (not grammar. I could never get my head around grammar. To this day I can’t decline nouns – sorry Miss Coote). The broad knowledge of both Greek and Latin literature explored in my seven years of Latin have left me fairly capable of understanding many references, particularly in Renaissance literature. Why not let students access this?
The first big barrier for me was deciding what text to focus on. We are creating an “ancient stories” scheme for year 7, to give students a broad grounding of different myths, but I wanted a deep exploration of a single ancient text at KS3. My initial choice was The Aeneid, which I studied for A2 very many years ago. Yet there is something about Homer which feels more original, I suppose because he was. Although The Aeneid combines the best parts of both “arms and the man”, the character exploration of The Odyssey mixed with the battles of The Iliad, I wasn’t sure whether this was the most important text for my students to read.
I opted for The Odyssey, therefore, as there’s too much listing in The Iliad. (I realise this sounds quite flippant, but I’d had a free period, and there’s only so much thinking you can do before the teaching and reacting to everyday crises needs to be done).
I’m pleased I did, actually, because The Odyssey touches on what are, for me, the key ideas in Greek literature that I wanted my students to explore: the Gods, the Trojan War, the myths. Pretty much every Greek myth is either found in or alluded to in The Odyssey. Scylla and Charibdis, the Sirens, Hades, the Cyclops; even Prometheus finds a fleeting mention.
Our students deserve an enriched and varied curriculum, and one which allows their depth of understanding to increase. Most books of substance, when critically explored, are inherently intertextual: The Odyssey is one small step to allowing students to access this.