Teaching tough texts in a world of “Twilight”

Last week, I outlined my experience at TLT and the fantastic sessions I attended. This week, I’ll outline my own session and some of the thoughts others shared.

I opened by exploring the idea of “rigour”: this seems to be one of a few educational buzz-words du jour. With the new “reformed” GCSEs in English, in particular, we are being forced to do away with such “non-rigorous” texts as Of Mice and Men (about which I have written before) in favour of more rigorous texts – which seem to be defined as nineteenth century, English composed ones. With tougher vocabulary. Along with this new rigour comes a new balance of language and literature; with progress 8 double-weighting the qualifications, no longer will schools prioritise language – a joy to English teachers everywhere.

At KS3, though, we might be mindful of balancing rigour with freedom and, dare I say, fun. Without ever losing sight of the qualifications we need to prepare students for, we also might wish to think about ways to engage and delight students in tough texts. I shared my own school’s current KS3 curriculum, with an unapologetic literary focus: we teach language through literature, and there are no “writing to inform” units or “media exploration” studies. Yet with such a tough curriculum comes a caveat: I don’t want my students to be passive recipients of literature, but rather literary critics.

Next, I shared one of my year 7’s paragraphs on poetry:

H lovely parag

Although this was meant to be an analytical essay, I couldn’t help but be proud of her. She really seemed to have engaged with the purpose and importance of poetry, even though this wasn’t something I’d ever explored with the class. Such engagement, I hope, will stand her in good stead for the tough qualifications she has ahead of her.

I didn’t want to denigrate Twilight, a book I actually really, really loved (and have written about it here), and used this as a springboard to explore personal reading. Noting the Matthew Effect (the word rich are often set to become word richer; the word poor poorer) I feel we, as English teachers, have an obligation to close the gap in our students’ experiences of literature. I cited the reading assemblies I have shared before on this blog as examples of my quest for students to take up the gauntlet of personal reading, and referred to Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer and some of the ideas I’ve explored before here. While Miller’s entire curriculum revolves around personal reading, how much should we be taking from this idea? How central should personal reading be in our practice? This formed the start of our conversations in the session, and I was interested to hear the thoughts of the lovely attendees and their fabulous ideas.

One mentioned some students simply don’t know how to pick a book, and explained her students tended to look at the books without even handling them, and then said “I can’t find something” – she had to model flicking through and reading the blurb for them.

Chris Hildrew mentioned his school had set up a “media frenzy” around some high quality texts, leading to students picking these up, reading them and discussing them in the way they had The Fault in Our Stars in response to the worldwide media attention this book has drawn.

In order to create literary critics though, we need more than just readers. I explored what makes a text suitable to teach, and shared some strategies I’ve used in the past for making these texts accessible. I then asked attendees to think of a student they were struggling to engage with reading and/or literary criticism, and formulate a plan of action for engaging that student. Some excellent ideas arose from this, many of which I will be taking and trialling myself – so thank you!

Once again, I will say that I had a fantastic time at TLT. During this last week of term, I have been more full of hope and energy than ever before of that particular week, and it can only be as a result of that day of meeting, sharing, learning.

Teaching tough texts in a world of Twilight

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The American Greats

It was with a heavy heart that I saw exam boards wave goodbye to American literature last week. Oh, I know, it’s “literature from other cultures,” but, to be frank, I’ve only ever taught the American contingent of that qualifier, and oh – how great it was.

The government has strenuously denied having “banned” American favourites, such as Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird, from our teaching; yet it cannot be escaped that the new categories for study required from students do not admit for these great texts to be taught. For all the hand-wringing and outcry at exam boards, wondering why they hadn’t been included in surplus, we must also consider: the exams will be harder. They will require different skills, such as navigating in a closed-text scenario. The exam board to direct teachers to teach more texts would not be one chosen by schools with one eye on their standing in the new, and again more rigorous, league tables.

So here we are. And as all the beautiful blogs I have read on this topic have expressed the views I would tend to share in (see below for links), I’ve decided to simply give the American Greats the airing they deserve, never to be taught in an American Literature GCSE coming to no school near you.

Arthur Miller

Is Miller the American genius? This was the question running through my mind as I watched the Young Vic’s astonishing interpretation of A View from the Bridge last Saturday. For a play described by many as “Greek” in its core themes, it resonated effortlessly. Only an American playwright, though, could so skillfully tap into ideas of identity and acceptance in the era of mass emigration; the wistfulness and disgust at the homeland; the rational and irrational behind romantic love. Miller’s Greek can be seen from his exploration of such taboos as incest and rape. And what of The Crucible? A play so crowded with lust and hysteria, it seems to pelt at the pace of Shakespeare’s best comedies, whilst including high drama, human sacrifice and, indeed, deepest, most touching tragedy.

J.D. Salinger

The first time I read Catcher in the Rye was also the first time I heard an authentic voice in a novel I could really relate to. Holden Caulfield expressed everything I felt, and it is with sadness that I can no longer find that teenage connection when I re-read this slim tome of surprise suffering. Franny and Zooey, on the other hand, continues to endure for me; existential questions, literary questions, psychological and religious questions abound, and all drawn with a realist’s best hand.

Sylvia Plath

Does a young nation inspire youthful literature which attracts young readers? Plath’s obsession with her father and her inner, troubled psychosis are eminently relatable for many a young person. Reading poems such as “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy”, one can hardly doubt her poetic genius, her ability to clinch an argument on a half-rhyme, and to surprise and delight while disgusting her reader.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

The original party-boy writer, whose life-long personal struggles precluded a Hemingway-sized output, but whose approach to writing could never have yielded results if dealt with in so mercenary a fashion. Fitzgerald’s ability to draw what he saw renders his prose so current it can’t ever quite feel historical to me. The 1920s are now; his characters are timeless; his prose like water – flowing, fluid; endlessly quotable.

Philip Roth

If ever an author took up every key theme in American literature and made it his business to beat them all into word-shapes, it is the masterly Roth. Each book heaves with the weight of a displaced people, with families torn apart, with humour and despair. His characters dance, and groan as they dance, and yet are never as memorable as the themes.

William Faulkner

I have often wondered if I would be more amenable to Faulkner were he a poet. His works require intense concentration and repetitious reading, but that effort can be paid off for the reader. His experimental style can occasionally obscure his message; at times style triumphs over all. And yet… The pathos evoked by Jewel and his horse in As I Lay Dying is, for me, unparalleled in any other novel.

I could go on, of course; and of course most of these authors were never likely to make it onto any syllabus, let alone within the strict confines now laid out by central government. I have already blogged on Of Mice and Men here, and how this text can provide a ready gateway for high achieving students. Looking at my year 12 class’s understanding of Gatsby, I do wonder if they would have had a similar reaction without any grounding in the literature of the USA. After all, this nation pervades our own; it takes over much of the television watched (both by teachers and the young people we educate), and its history draws on our own in very many ways. Our scholars do need to understand the literature of other cultures, and what more fertile ground for understanding than America? So like, and so unlike us; the literature of America can take on melodrama, history, taboo, suffering and humour… And win us to reading.

You should definitely look at these views on the new English curricula:

http://learningfrommymistakesenglish.blogspot.co.uk/

http://blog.geoffbarton.co.uk/site/Blog/Entries/2014/5/25_Get_him%2C_Lennie.html

http://www.networkedblogs.com/XcCRe

http://www.huntingenglish.com/2014/05/27/whose-canon-anyway/

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.