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.

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.

Off-duty Reading

Now is the time that my quest for all-the-book-reading reaches its epic zenith. My educator readers might allow me this self-indulgence; I wanted to share my thoughts on what I have been reading while on holiday. This is partly to combat my previously noted tendency to race through books without pause, in using this public forum to school myself in reflection on what I have read. Partly, of course, this is written because, as much as I love school, students and teaching, my brain doesn’t want to do as much thinking on these subjects during the summer months as it does on novels, and other such “fun books.”

In an attempt to justify my words below, this blog is not overtly about education: it is, rather, about books. Only incidentally do I hope to offer any musings on the former.

So – to the vacation! Let me paint a picture: friends, sunshine, plenty to do and see, and me, in a corner, on my own, with my Kindle. This might give you an idea of why you should never, ever agree to go on holiday with me, and allow you to understand why my friends ostracise me at the poolside.  Here were my favourite reads, read in idyllic surroundings with the greatest of hosts and the greatest of friends.
Hearts and minds, Amanda Craig

I began with a paperback by one of my new favourite authors, recommended to me by one of the most impressively well-read, deeply intuitive and eminently qualified teachers I know, Mrs. Clayton. Anything Mrs. Clayton tells me to read, I know I will love. I am indebted to her for this authorial recommendation. I had previously read “A Vicious Circle”, which explores the sordid world of London publishing, with deep delight, and found “Hearts and Minds” similarly enjoyable for wholly different reasons.

Firstly, I love a book set in a place I have lived. The familiarity of London here brought the author’s reality to life all the more perfectly for me. Craig’s characters are a mix of very real, and very stock, yet this is a mix which works. Her interweaving storylines are always an enjoyable puzzle, and in this novel she takes on different ideas about immigration, by focusing her perspective on a variety of classes and cultures. For a more focused awareness of migrants and a storyline at times as outrageous as any BBC thriller, I would recommend this book.

Dark Lies the Island, Kevin Barry

As noted in an earlier post, here, I am trying to increase my reading of short stories. Barry’s stories had been recommended to me by scores of almost universally Irish friends, and I began with this tome purely as it was the most recent I had heard of. I was not to be disappointed.

These beautiful vignettes of Irish life span the island in its modernity, and veer from SoCo (South County Dublin; Londoners, think of purest West London) kitchen drama with a light tone reminiscent of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly to a Joyce-esque devastating portrait of a man trapped in a routine. Language is used in an enjoyably creative way; Barry describes a clean-cut type with an “orthodontic beam” early on; a man aware of the familiarity of his quest for originality notes that: “every last crooked rock of the place had at some point seated the bony arse of some hypochondrical epiphany-seeker.” A short read, but one I took my time over.
Transatlantic, Colum McCann

Have you read “Let the Great World Spin”? It ranks in my all time top ten books, possibly even top five. I trusted in McCann and took a gamble on his new novel.

While I didn’t feel “Transatlantic” reached the mountainous heights of “Great World…”, McCann’s construction of narrative and meticulous research cannot be faulted. His Irish roots have come to fruition at last, as he turns his attention to the “Irish Question”, as always, in an inventive manner. The way in which he interweaves his stories is not as clear as Craig’s, and yet his work seems all the more literary for that intentional blur.

The especially superb parts of this text are, in my view, McCann’s reimagining of Frederick Douglass’ voyage to Ireland, and George Mitchell’s chronologically later appearance as an unnamed senator detailing the intricate narrative of life and negotiations at that time.

McCann’s language is always succinct: in depicting life in Dublin’s slums of yore he writes: “women walked in rags, less than rags: as rags”, for example. His summary of the British feeling on the Northern Ireland issue, though perhaps coloured, is excellent: “embarrassed by what they have done for centuries in Ireland. Ready to leave. To hightail it out of there. They would wipe their hands clean in an instant, if only they didn’t have to do it in front of the world.”

Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates

In a moment of weakness, I watched this film on iPlayer about a year ago and thus consigned myself to never reading the novel – that’s how it works, right? Then, in a second hand book shop, I came across it for only £2 and couldn’t resist.

I am extremely glad I gave into temptation, for if the film is unremittingly depressing (don’t watch it if you’re even a little bit sad) the book is far, far less so. There is an abundance of humour, both in terms of irony and also in Yates’ playful use of language. One example I was so particularly fond of as to bore those around me in its recital is this: the central character, Frank, justifies his decision to take on an unexciting career by saying:

“Look at it this way. I need a job; okay. Is that any reason why the job I get has to louse me up? Look. All I want is to get enough dough coming in to keep us solvent for the next year or so, till I can figure things out; meanwhile I want to retain my own identity. Therefore the thing I’m most anxious to avoid is any kind of work that can be considered ‘interesting’ in its own right. I want something that can’t possibly touch me. I want some big, swollen old corporation that’s been bumbling along making money in its sleep for a hundred years, where they have to hire eight guys for every one job because none of them can be expected to care about whatever boring thing it is they’re supposed to be doing. I want to go into that kind of place and say, Look. You can have my body and my nice college-boy smile for so many hours a day, in exchange for so many dollars, and beyond that we’ll leave each other strictly alone.”

The crisp narrative appears to fly on apace, although ironically this is a book which turns on inaction.

The tragedy with which the novel ends is surprisingly muted. There is a lack of feeling or emotion in the text, which serves to emphasise the ideas Yates seems to be putting forward in the narrative.
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

After my recent diet of extremely fun, and universally modern books, I felt like I’d committed the reading equivalent of eating one too many McDonalds. Indeed, I have for a long time felt the English graduate’s smugness of having read pretty much all of the Oxford Classics (when I say read, you might substitute “skimmed” or even “read a series of critical essays plus selected skimming”) at University. But it is time to face facts: there are innumerable “classics” I did not read, or did not read properly, and it is time to put this to rights.

Now, I’m cheating here because I haven’t actually finished this book. But I really wanted to write something about “David Copperfield” because I have rarely enjoyed Dickens. The promise of “Oliver Twist” was not fulfilled for me in “Bleak House” or “Little Dorrit” or “Dombey and Son”, possibly one of my least favourite tomes (shortly followed by “The Faerie Queene” – if you have read and enjoyed it, I bow in your literary honour).

Following university, it occurred to me that Dickens is not best read skimmed. His way with words is the essence of his work; the plot, surprisingly, is not enough. I went on to read “The Old Curiosity Shop” and “Great Expectations” about five years ago, but slowly, and with some surprised enjoyment. Yet “David Copperfield”, at least until page 724, supersedes all the previous Dickens of my acquaintance. It is really, really funny, for starters. The characters in this novel have multiple dimensions and conflicting passions and prejudices in a realistic and natural way unachieved in the texts named above. The use of first person is delightfully employed, and in my year 7 Scheme of Work for Autumn 1 on Dickens, we will certainly be revisiting parts of this novel.

My only wish with Dickens is that the latterday publishers would divide his novels into installments as they were initially published for his reading public. In fact, I feel there is an opportunity for a service which delivers weekly or monthly installments to your inbox, to prevent us slaving away unnaturally at a thousand pages a time.

So endeth the self-indulgent survey of my holiday reading. Lest you non-teachers think I slack, I will assure you I have also read more study guides, Cambridge Companions, literary essays, critical biographies and pedagogy guides than you can shake a large stick at in preparation for the new academic year – do not entirely begrudge me the rest.