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.

Why students should read Homer

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.