Women in literature (or: this one’s for the girls)

I didn’t choose to work in a girls’ school. It just sort of happened. Twice. I wasn’t even aware, the first time, that girls’ schools existed outside of the independent sector. And this is in no way me weighing in on the argument about mixed or single sex education: I am too utterly torn between the unfairness of working in phenomenal schools that effectively exclude 50% of the population, and the fact that girls are really, really lovely to teach on their own. (I know it’s more complicated than that, so here ends my weighing.)

One thing that I love about working in an all-girls’ school is the way I can shape my lessons and my curriculum to reflect what are also my concerns. I can obviously understand and empathise with the women in literature and the feminist concerns more readily and with more interest than those of the other sex. I know what girls like. And I’m sure my colleagues in mixed schools know what both boys and girls like, but with me there was no learning involved.

It’s self-indulgent to have the capacity to only consider what would interest people I was once like. My reading lists are undeniably lacking in machismo, action or horror, or any of those texts that traditionally don’t appeal to women; don’t appeal to me.

But what is much more important than all this literary laziness is the opportunity to be proactive about women’s issues. That’s right, I said it. Because for all our assumed equality, there is a massive bone to pick with literary history, and I intend on my girls knowing about it and reading about it, then using those glasses to look more closely at the way things are now, and to draw some new conclusions.

Year 10 have just finished studying a beautiful course my department has called “Women in nineteenth century literature.” The first half term, we skipped through “The Lady of Shalott” and waded more slowly through “Jane Eyre,” before considering the female mindset under patriarchy (or, hysteria) in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” We then segued into an exploration of women who once earned us the right to vote, looking at the pamphlets they wrote and the speeches they gave.

The young women I teach are full of confidence, and full of brains. They brim with these. There is an overriding concern in some areas of some English departments with what boys are reading, and what boys are learning, and how to engage boys in reading and literature; in particular ethnic groups particularly. But when you dig down in the data, with the luxury of looking only at the girls, the same under-achievements are there. Yes, girls do better overall; but crucially, not as well as they could.

Of course, gender is only one slim strand of a person’s many-textured personality; it is simplistic to argue that if I like it, they like it. But I will be forever grateful for the many opportunities this single orientation has allowed me.

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.