Autumn 1: Literature Central

I’m writing a retrospective on Autumn 1, and I’ll open by saying it has been a surprisingly good term. I’ll resist the temptation to elaborate, lest the ones who have held me up for 7 weeks and listened to my many woes read such a reflection and have to have words with me. Starting a new school, especially in a new role, was always going to be a challenge. Luckily, I am in the enviable position of my predecessor not only supporting me as line manager, with all the inside knowledge that can be offered from such a vantage, but also having set up an incredible curriculum – which is the subject of this blog.

I will admit, the prospect of Dickens for an entire term was enough to make me run flailing the other way in June. However, I found my own personal joy in Dickens (explored here and here) over the summer, which helped a little.

The other thing that has helped is my year 7 class. One of the “make-or-break” aspects of accepting a Head of Department role, for me, was teaching every key stage – at least in my first year. I wanted to have first-hand experience of the curriculum offer, and also to see what mixed ability teaching looks like in the department (we, like the vast majority, set at KS4) and to be assured it was working well for the students.

Year 7 has always been a mixed experience for me. They are undeniably adorable little humans, so full of excitement and energy. They can also be exhausting, with all the unformed emotional intelligence and neediness that comes of the giant leap from primary to secondary. I have found much more of the former and much less of the latter (in fact, almost none) in my current year 7 class. I do believe a strong head of year has helped them to settle quickly into the school. But I also believe they are tiny geniuses in the making, at least in English.

The scheme for this term has taken students on a Dickens journey, exploring excerpts from his poetry as well as novels such as: Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. I had my reservations about beginning the year by not teaching full texts, however I can’t deny the positive impact this scheme has had on my little ones. (And rest assured: we are doing full texts for the rest of the year.) What this scheme is, in effect, is a run through the key reading and writing skills students need, but using Dickens as a prompt. So, students explored writing a compelling opening using antithesis inspired by “it was the best of times; it was the worst of times” (and the rest).

There have been too many highlights of teaching this particular year 7 class to explore them all, but seeing students of a very wide range of ability access Dickens, empathise with his characters, and enjoy his writing has really changed my mind on the idea of a “depth” curriculum. I will also add that three students have professed to be reading Great Expectations; one even showed me the sweetest page of notes she had taken on the book. Absolutely no-one has said “we’re still doing Dickens?” at any point this term. When I told them we were studying “A Christmas Carol” after half term, the only emotion shown was elation. When students read the description of Miss Havisham and were instructed to highlight anything they found effective, one student piped up: “can’t I just highlight it all?”

The year 10 curriculum has been similarly literary. In fact, in ample time for the new KS3/4 curriculums, my line manager put in place some extremely inspiring schemes of work to prepare students for the rigours of a literature-heavy GCSE, and of couse A-level – our end-goal.

The iGCSE has its drawbacks, however for the scope of the coursework it is a winner for me. This term has been focused on iGCSE coursework tasks, which are in turn descriptive, argumentative and reading-based; however, in contrast to AQA’s “write about something which makes you angry” and other such generia, we have been teaching students about women in nineteenth century literature, and using this as a springboard for their creative and critical writing.

The scheme began with Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”, which my students were undeniably fazed by. It is a tough text, worthy of longer study. Yet their understanding of the implicit ideas in the poem has rendered some powerful pieces of description, as they wrote about the journey she took.

We moved onto Jane Eyre, worthy of a term itself. Students have the book and are, I hope against hope, ploughing through it still as I write. We explored key chapters together and wrote a number of pieces inspired by Bronte’s characters and settings.

Then onto Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which was a true joy to teach. I will never forget the faces of the students when they reached the end of the story – not quite wanting to believe what they were reading, and knowing something had happened which challenged their ideas of what the nineteenth century female writer might be exploring. Another descriptive piece followed.

Finally, we explored the idea of women’s suffrage, linking up with their study of it in year 9 History, and wrote speeches arguing against articles and letters from the time.

What students have gained, I feel, is a healthy overview of some great writing and some central concerns of the nineteenth century. The coursework did not take over, and we did not teach to the task. The coursework was almost incidental. As you can redraft it as many times as needed, there wasn’t the pressure to drill it in and get it perfect. I just wanted my students to be creative and to understand the wider concepts of the time period.

All of which sets them up nicely for their Literature Controlled Assessment next term – although I’m not sure how they or I are going to cope with a more task-driven term.

I can’t by any stretch of the imagination take any modicum of credit for what these children are studying; I can only advocate this approach. Our visiting “mock-Ofsted” inspector described the curriculum throughout KS3 and KS4 as “inspiring.” I have certainly found it to be so as a teacher.

More than ever, I feel like I am certain of what I want my students to have when they leave me, and the only way I am sure they can attain this is through study of challenging and literary texts. I am delighted to be in an environment which has fostered this.

The power of the theatre

An amazing thing happened a few weeks ago for one of my year 12 English Literature students. She visited the theatre for the first time.

Let’s take a moment to really think about this: a student goes nearly 17 years of her life loving English and excelling in it, acing her GCSE English exams and opting to take English A-level. And all without ever having sat in a plush red seat, experienced the lights dimming and watched real humans saying words written by playwrights to each other.

Clearly, something is going wrong here.

This student wasn’t the only one to benefit from this theatre experience, however. I had been frustrated at how difficult my year 12s were finding Much Ado About Nothing, a product I think of the GCSE Literature course: only one Shakespeare play, and if you opt to do this for the Controlled Assessment instead of the exam, well then you may not have studied any Shakespeare since year 10.

In hindsight, it was a mistake to begin with Shakespeare. But we plough on.

The production, at the Old Vic Theatre, was certainly not a “straight” production. Liberties had been taken with setting, costume and, most obviously, casting. Even better, in a way, for displaying how versatile Shakespeare’s works are, and how open to reinterpretation by successive generations of directors and actors.

Seeing the entire play all the way through is nowhere near as soporific as showing the (brilliantly uncut Globe version) DVD all the way through. There’s something different about seeing it in a theatre, without a desk and your notepad in front of you, and without the hard plastic chairs. (Adorably, almost all of my year 12s insisted on bringing their copies of the text to the theatre, and valiantly attempted to follow it through while watching.) Also, I’m not sure how Ofsted or any other inspector would feel about me showing a film for 2 hours.

Watching the play the whole way through has led to increased confidence, increased awareness and increased understanding of the text. It will undoubtedly improve the resulting coursework, and I am forever grateful that my school actually paid for every child’s ticket in full.

Yet the theatre is about more than coursework and understanding. It is a rich cultural experience that should not be withheld from any member of society. I would argue that it is our responsibility as English teachers to ensure that every child has seen a play the whole way through by the time they leave us. This is regardless of it fitting in with their course: any experience of theatre enriches a student’s understanding of the vast body of literature, and, moreover, the different realms of literature: for some students, we must concede, literature means novels and poetry. It means words on a page. We need to change this.

I was told by a colleague of a headteacher of an outstanding primary school who used their entire pupil premium for the year to take every child to a West End show. I know some critics might deride this as a casual waste of money. But I applaud the bravery of that headteacher. He recognized that there was something so worthwhile in the enterprise of theatre, something so empowering for students, that it was worth that money.

And when it comes down to money, which it does, it seems unfortunate. As a head of department, I consider the most vital resource to be books: there always should be money in the budget for books. Yet after that, we need to consider these ephemeral “books in action,” which give so much to our students.

As a result of our year 12 theatre trip, the English department will be taking selected students to a theatre show once a term. The numbers, for money and staffing, will have to be small; no more than 20 at a time. The students will need to be chosen carefully: we want to take students who deserve a treat, and students who will benefit from this cultural experience. Perhaps we can build this momentum to bring an entire year group every year. The play, of course, will also need to be chosen carefully: I don’t think I want to take year 7 to Chekhov. Rafe Esquith also notably emphasizes the importance of educating students about the play before the visit, so they can squeeze the most out of the experience.

The theatre should not be an optional extra. It should not be cast aside as too expensive, or a waste of valuable resources. And we should not have 17-year-old budding literary critics who have never been there.

In praise of Dickens

I recently wrote about my surprisingly wondrous experience with “David Copperfield” (book, not person) here, and this prompted me to write a longer post about Dickens.

I alluded to my chequered history with Dickens in the above post. We didn’t get on at all. My expectations were overly high, I think, after watching the movie musical “Oliver!” a hundred and twenty four times, and on reading “Oliver Twist” I was scared by its complexity, desparately searching for characters who were the spit of the film. I was also, clearly, missing the singing and dancing.

The Artful Dodger of the musical is unrecognisable in the book. In the musical, he is affable, exciting and cute – but most of all he is not at all threatening. In the book, he is like a grotesque of a street child – terrifyingly wise beyond his years, an adult in an adult world, despite his childish appearance. In my younger years, I was unable to reconcile this difference. Similarly, the underworld of Victorian London, when not singing and dancing in unison, seemed remarkably unattractive.

Shortly after “Oliver Twist” came “A Christmas Carol.” This was a book I could get along with. A lovely clear moral, nothing overly nasty to deal with, and much simpler language. This was until the story was forever ruined by a subversive lecturer in university, who described the story as an advertisement for capitalist Britain (“Scrooge atones for his wrongs by buying his way into the favour of others”).

I trekked my way without joy through “Bleak House,” only to discover the BBC series (one of the best things I have ever, ever seen) and wish I had spent more effort in the reading. This lack of joy was topped by “Dombey and Son”, which I believed at the time of reading was one of the very worst books ever written.

Yet my recent breakthrough with “David Copperfield” has convinced me that my original beliefs were entirely misguided. Having previously warmed to “Great Expectations” and “The Old Curiosity Shop” (which went to convince me that the problem was not the text, but me – Dickens is Dickens, but in the midst of a crowded University or school term I race through and miss the point), it made me think again about the value of teaching Dickens.

I am beginning year 7 this year with an in-depth unit on Dickens, created before my arrival in my new school. Until this point, my teaching of Dickens was confined to a mere one lesson; one of writing descriptions for year 7, using the opening of “Bleak House” and focusing on the fog. My year 7 found the passage tough, but that only enhanced their enjoyment of it. The major outcome of this lesson related to vocabulary – there were many tricky words in the passage that I glossed for students. I might have even suggested they aim to include some of these words in their own description. Whatever I did, the thing I remember is that they went on using these words, even a week and a month later. For the children I was teaching, vocabulary was power. They loved it.

Every year, we teach a Shakespeare play, and we never think about arguing against this. Shakespeare is, after all, the greatest creator and user of language in the history of the world – undisputed. But why do we – or rather, to make it personal, why did I – think it was acceptable to say “I hate Dickens” for so long? Dickens is clearly the master of the novel; his work endures; its humour endures, its message endures. This reminded me of the David Lodge book where the characters, all university professors, play a game of saying books they haven’t read (it’s like a “never have I ever” for nerds). (There is shock a horror when one admits to having never read “Hamlet”, I recall.) I wonder how many of us are walking around, having never read a Dickens novel, without shame?

My year 7 are not tackling a lengthy Dickens novel. They are reading extensive passages from a variety of works, before moving onto a new scheme of work purely focused on “A Christmas Carol” after half term. I’m not sure what I make of this, but I wonder if it might be worth revisiting Dickens in year 8 or 9. In fact, I wonder about the value of studying only very short excerpts of a novel, and this is something I will quiz my students on.

Enjoying Dickens is so easy. Read it aloud, then read it slowly. Look up the words which are unfamiliar (this goes for me as well as my students). Every student should be taught to enjoy Dickens, lest they end up like me circa eight weeks ago.

More Texts or More Depth?

I have been recently challenged to consider what the role of an English teacher is. This usually happens when I meet people whose views I disagree with, which is one of my favourite things to do. I love re-considering what I had initially assumed to be true. More often than not, I end up doing some serious mind-changing; partly because I have never had debating skills, or possibly I am deeply impressionable. I am hoping it is mostly because other people are right, and I am wrong, and I make the right choice.

So, I had always thought, inspired by the Teach for America chieftains and Rafe Esquith, the job of an English teacher was mostly to expose and lead students through as much literature as was humanly possible, preferably, inspired by Joe Kirby’s impressive curriculum here, also showing them the evolution of language, style and content through a beautifully arranged compendium of the whole of literature ever.

It began with library lessons, which I have always maintained are wonderful and valuable. An esteemed colleague put the argument that “students can read in their own time – and I am aware that some don’t” – but is that a problem that their English teacher in their English lesson should be solving? He argued that we have limited time to lead our students, and rather than that being a race through all the literature, we should be going for deep knowledge and embedded skills.

This alternative universe is a new one to me, but it’s one I am willing to explore. Though there are already some parallels: often, when taking out the Shakespeare play we will be studying in year 7, 8 or 9, a handful of children will exclaim: “but I already did that play! In primary school!” Yet those same children seem, at best, to have a shaky grasp on the plot of the play, let alone the nuances of theme and character I would like them to explore. Indeed, my year 11 revisited a play many of them had studied in year 8, and all had an undeniably different experience of reading the play anew and older.

Like all schools, we revisit Shakespeare every year, and I think most teachers would argue very strongly that the repetition of this particular author builds up our students’ understanding and enjoyment. But perhaps how long we spend on Shakespeare needs to be explored. Usually, I give over the entire two half terms after Easter for Shakespeare at KS3. With few exceptions, we study the whole play, minus the truly terrible scenes, and there is a lot of acting, creative re-interpretation and philosophy circles along the way – rest assured, it is not mere ploughing through the text.

Yet I wouldn’t spend a full term on, for example, poetry. I seem quite happy to teach poetry for five or six weeks a year and be done with it until the following year. Other than practicing their understanding, inference and analysis, how much do students really get out of such a short unit? If we are thinking about how we sequence and deliver content and skills, perhaps there needs to be more time spent on deep learning and multiple examples.

This race through the curriculum is especially exacerbated at KS4, when many English teachers feel they are “teaching to the test” with Controlled Assessment after Controlled Assessment, and little time for real, deep learning to occur. (There were times with my last year 11 when I thought in despair: “I haven’t actually taught them anything since year 9. They’ve just been practicing doing it.”)

That said, it may also be argued that familiarity breeds enthusiasm. In my last English department, we were hopeful that the students who end up in year 13 will not look with trepidation on the Wife of Bath’s Tale, but instead associate that text with familiarity and fun they had with Chaucer in year 7.

For a “depth not breadth” approach to truly work, I would argue that a school needs a robust policy of reading for pleasure, which is enforced. Students can read at home, but do they read at home? There is ample “down time” in many school timetables for reading for ten minutes or twenty, for example during form-time, but it needs to be enforced throughout the school.

At this point in time, I’m undecided: I genuinely don’t know what the best balance between quality and quantity is in the curriculum I would offer to students. But I’m going to explore a “depth” curriculum this year and find out.

Loving Shakespeare

I am going to confess to something which I am not proud of: at age 15, I proclaimed to my English teacher (the famed Dr Byrne, of whom more later) that Oscar Wilde was a better playwright than William Shakespeare. And I wasn’t being deliberately argumentative, like I usually was.

I just didn’t like Shakespeare at all.

I didn’t understand it, I didn’t relate to it, and I certainly didn’t know why I had to study it.

Then something changed my view of Shakespeare forever: the 1996 RSC version of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was learning a Shakespeare speech for a LAMDA acting exam, something I am incredibly glad I was forced to do, and for the “discussion” part of the exam we had to be able to discuss the play in its entirety. I picked the DVD up from the library, only because there was no video, and settled down one afternoon in the kitchen. I distrustingly loaded the disc into the PC (a new experience) and shuffled onto a hard kitchen chair to watch it.

The set was incredible: from the man-made lake to the stand-alone doors leading to nowhere to the suspended light bulbs illuminating the forest. It was utterly beautiful. I watched this in 2001, with all my teenage disregard for the bard, at our enormous and unwieldy computer, and I was entirely gripped. The beauty of the staging drew me in, but the relevance of the words was delivered, it seemed, directly to me and directly to my own context. It spoke to me, in a way I hadn’t been spoken to by a play before. I laughed, I cried, and at last I understood.

I’m re-watching this version now to use to teach my year 7 and I am brought back again to the start of my love affair with the bard. Indeed, my single favourite thing about living in London is that I can see live Shakespeare for only £5 a show at the Globe Theatre.

Incidentally, another gem worth a watch is the Globe on screen version of Much Ado About Nothing. I remember watching this production in the theatre itself at the tail end of one of my most stressful teaching terms, and despite not even knowing the story (although my helpful teacher theatre companion did her best to enlighten me en route to the playhouse) found myself laughing uncontrollably.

But how to make my students feel this?

I really believe that the key is a great version; reading words on the page, even as an English teacher, is nowhere near the same as an accomplished actor conveying the lines. So much about plays, anyway, is in the staging, the direction and the delivery of the lines; a novel’s intended audience is only ever an individual, its intended reader’s setting irrelevant, its intended backdrop a blank page. A play clearly has very many more complex layers than this.

The brilliance of a Globe production filmed is not only in the superb acting, but in the nearness of the visible audience, all (in the Much Ado Globe on Screen, and in my own experience) cloaked in rain-macs and huddled to each other and the stage; all interacting with the performance. I am certain the responses of these very familiar-looking modern humans will help my students to appreciate that yes, real people right now laugh at this stuff.

I believe that Shakespeare must be seen first, and acted; not read and analysed to death (although that can come later). On showing my year 9 set 5 Baz Luhrmann’s Act 1 Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet, my students were bewitched. They really loved it. As one commented: “I didn’t think it would be about people like me!” She might have found the language a turn-off when presented with the page, but seeing the live action challenged that initial distaste for Shakespeare.

I, and I am sure all English teachers, am begging directors and producers everywhere: please, please keep giving us game-changing, earth moving and relevant Shakespeare that we and our students can love.

After all this, I’m still not entirely sure I love reading the stuff. But watching – that’s an entirely different story.


In Praise of ‘Of Mice and Men’

I’m aware that this post’s title alone may have caused a not insignificant number of readers, in particular those teaching English, to pull at their hair shouting “doom! Never make me read this again!” Also, hands up if you studied this for your GCSEs? I am imagining lots of hands. AQA, I would love a statistic on just how many children have studied this novel and taken an exam in it.

More than ten years ago, I was taught this novel by the most knowledgeable and charismatic teacher you can imagine. At that time, this was undeniably the best book I had ever read, although I think I only know that in hindsight (my taste was all over the place – my 15 year old self would probably have said Orwell’s “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”, a book I have since discovered is one of his most derided works).

The themes in the novel are epic: life, death, hope, dreams, power, powerlessness – I could go on, but I am trusting that 90% of readers can fill in the blanks themselves.

What really struck me about this novel was that when I came to prepare to teach it 11 years later, it still got me in a big way. Sitting on my sofa one sad, exhausted Friday, I ploughed through the entire thing, only to find myself weeping uncontrollably by the final pages. Why did this happen?

There is a fabulous essay, which I made my year 11 read, by Thomas Scarseth called “A Teachable Good Book”, in which he discourses at length on the nature of tragedy and whether this book is one. Unarguably, catharsis is a key component of tragedy, and if my sniveling, hysterical reaction is anything to go by, this book is one.

It is a tragedy of another kind, however: of both the ordinary man, and the unlucky man. In our comparatively caring society, the modern reader pities Lennie and sees him as this force for general good, albeit one liable to make mistakes. Through Steinbeck’s narration, we come to empathise with him, even as he commits the most horrific acts. We are made to understand why, and made to feel intense pity. The narrative comes crashing towards its tragically inevitable climax and we find ourselves wondering “how could this happen? How could it have been changed?”, much like, I would argue, in the closing scenes of many a Shakespeare play.

Another reason I wanted to blog about this book was because I am an examiner for an GCSE Literature paper, and as part of my duties I read the alternative modern texts for this exam. Only a few struck me as enjoyable, the others I struggled through, and none bore the hallmark of great literature in the way that Steinbeck’s novel does.

If we want students to become readers of literature, they surely must study the greatest literature; not just books which are conduits for discussing a writer’s techniques. We wonder why this book is so omnipresent on the English curriculum, but have we really looked at the alternatives? I would rather teach a truly great novel, even if it means repetition for me.

Finally, this novel opens the most gifted students up to the greatness of Steinbeck. Many of my year 11s also read The Grapes of Wrath; one even read East of Eden. It also primes them for a wider and more advanced study of American Literature at A-level, containing, as it does, the most crucial themes and some of the most pertinent contextual facts of that nation.

All in all: yes, we teach it to death; no, there are no better alternatives currently; but yes, this is undeniably a towering work of fiction.