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.