The one with all the
|To the great from the personal | Lorna Smith||New ways to play old texts | Tom Rank|
|The rich get richer | Geoff Barton||Story, day trips and SEN | Andrew Buckton|
|Real literature | Phil Beadle||Webwatch | Rhiannon Glover|
|Building connections | Harry Dodds|
Time was, a text needed to have been written before 1914 in order to have 'literary heritage' status conferred on it by the government. But the years speed by and someone must have noticed that a text written in, say, 1915, isn't particularly contemporary these days, and in fact that any number of 20th century texts could be said to 'qualify' for heritage status.
So now all a writer needs in order to be assigned to the English literary heritage is to be 'of sufficient literary merit' – and dead. Check out the specifications for the new GCSEs and you'll see this in action: living writer = contemporary; dead writer = literary heritage. Quite what happens when a writer dies mid-specification is anyone's guess.
Not that the writers here are distracted by such trivia. Read on for some wonderful insights on teaching the 'literary heritage' and on what really matters. And matter it really does. As Geoff Barton says, 'It's what we do.'
If there were just one book that you would save should a disaster of unimaginable proportions hit the British Library, what would it be?
This is one of the most revealing questions we ask prospective teachers who come to their PGCE interview at our university. The responses often suggest far more about the candidate than their pre-prepared offerings and, cruelly, I delight to see them struggle to come up with an answer. (Rule of thumb: the longer the struggle, the better the candidate.)
Many grapple between a book that has been a key part of their own literary heritage and one that represents our collective literary heritage. In the former category is an appealing range: some opt for their favourite childhood bedtime story (Michael Bond’s A Bear Like Paddington was recently suggested), while others choose a book that ignited something within them (Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things was nominated as the novel that re-inspired a mature candidate to read for pleasure after the gruelling grind through the prescribed texts for her degree). The latter category is, for me, more interesting, however. Which of the canonised texts should we save for the future of humanity? Shakespeare, obviously; Milton’s Paradise Lost – ditto; Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, the Booker of Bookers – perhaps.
A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.
None of us would dispute that literary heritage matters; it has importance in our personal lives and shared cultural identity. And surely, it is part of our role as English teachers to inspire, if not a love, at least a respect for our literary heritage. But hang on – what does ‘our’ mean? And to whose version of ‘heritage’ do we subscribe? Dr Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf (as the collection of Harvard Classics is known) differs markedly from Harold Bloom’s more recent The Western Canon, on which the Teachit resources An introduction to writers and their times are based. This in turn differs from the list of texts that ‘have influenced culture and thinking’ contained within and promoted by the National Curriculum for English.
The variety suggested by these and other versions of what makes up our literary heritage is to be celebrated. Try asking groups of A Level students each to champion a particular version of ‘the canon’, or get them to review a range of canons and suggest their own. The fact that so many academics, great thinkers and lovers of words have taken it upon themselves to collate and justify their recommended reads is itself testament to the importance of exploring literary heritage in the classroom.
After all, what happens in each of our classrooms may even have an impact on our future literary heritage. Did his teacher at Stratford Grammar School ever imagine the heights to which young Shakespeare would soar? To take a more contemporary angle, one of my current student teachers is on teaching practice at the boys’ grammar school in Salisbury in which Golding was inspired to write Lord of the Flies (and a blue plaque outside reminds us of the fact). The minds of pupils (and teachers?) in today’s schools, perhaps albeit unwittingly, are rehearsing to create tomorrow’s great reads.
So far, none of the PGCE candidates has suggested a picture book or a comic or a film script or any other type of multimedia text as that must-save text – and I’m not arguing here that they should have done. However, it would be foolish to think that the inclusion of such a text will not one day be justified. Our ‘heritage’ is infinitely expanding, and we need to consider the impact of new technologies upon it. (Lovers of irony will note that the British Library’s wonderful website is to be celebrated both because it enables us to access and admire traditional texts and is a shining example of a new ‘text’.)
Most of the new teachers who hope to study on our English PGCE course do so because they have been inspired by a love of literature; even those whose degrees are in language-related areas have usually arrived there via a literary journey. We come to the great from the personal. If anyone is reading this while preparing to meet me soon at interview – I’ll look forward to your considered response to that question.
It was an obscure article on dyslexia that first introduced me to ‘The Matthew Effect’. In a passing reference to the Parable of the Talents, Dr K. Stanovich pointed out that in reading – like the servants in the Bible story itself – ‘the rich get richer and the poor get poorer’.
Let’s not stray into the theology, but in linguistic terms it’s a compelling, if depressing, insight: the more our children encounter rich vocabulary and varied sentence structures, the more their own linguistic development will flourish. The more we immerse them in stories and riddles and conversations and jokes, then the more confident they will become in using language themselves.
It’s so obvious, perhaps, as to be a platitude.
But in practice the effect is devastating. A seven-year old in the top 25% of language users, according to DCSF research, might be expected to have a vocabulary of more than 7,000 words. One in the bottom quartile may have just 3,000 words. The linguistic chasm is already massive. And since knowing vocabulary is a key to improving comprehension skills, to becoming a more assured and effective reader, the outcomes are predictable.
The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a live thing, a story.
Ursula K. LeGuin
The rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer.
Which is where literary heritage comes in. Because the same principle, I would suggest, applies here.
When I announced, more than a quarter of a century ago, that I was going to become an English teacher, my brilliant and eccentric role model, Roy Samson (he taught me in Year 7 and then the sixth form), said, "Great - you’re going to spend your life reading stories."
And, in a way, that’s what I’ve done ever since. Read stories. Part of a proud tradition which Professor Margaret Mathieson, in her history of English teaching, memorably labelled as ‘Preachers of Culture’. She was quoting Matthew Arnold.
It’s what English teachers have always done and now perhaps it’s more important than ever. We all know that feeling, on a wet Thursday afternoon, when the windows steam up and a well-chosen novel or short story weaves its magic, holding a class spellbound.
The older I get, the more struck I am by the ways the great stories of the past do this when well told. More and more I find myself referencing a tale from Shakespeare, or a Greek myth, or a story of the distant past re-presented in a poem by Tennyson or reinvented by Carol Ann Duffy.
Simply telling the story in an assembly or going off at a brief but important tangent in a lesson often hooks pupils’ interest. But it shouldn’t just happen by accident. If the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, then we will want to make sure that all our pupils – not just the ones from the bookish backgrounds – hear us talk about the writing that has shaped our culture, how the stories we read now are grown out of stories of the past.
We’ll want pictures of great writers and their characters, plus samples from their work, plastered across our English Departments. We’ll want our pupils to sense as they walk into our curriculum area that they’re about to experience not just the most important subject on the timetable but an emotional experience that connects them with the great writing of the past as well as the present.
Because that’s what English teachers do: we are preachers of culture.
“But it’s boring.”
So goes the conversation between teacher and class whenever I’ve gone all Leavisite missionary on ’em and forced Year 8 to read Moby Dick.
“What’s it all about though sir?”
If you want to get through a classic work of literature with a bunch of inner city kids you have to have the courage of your convictions, for there will be many opportunities for you to bottle it. The kids see the size of the book and baulk; often very loudly indeed. They are not used to having to work for their pleasure. Why should they? The video game gives them instant gratification without them having to do anything to earn it, and it can take six long weeks of lessons to read a decent and tasty piece of real literature. Six weeks during which the start of every lesson will be greeted with cries of, “Oh no. Not this bloody book again. Who will rid us of this troublesome text?”
A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.
You have to ignore their protests, grind out the reading, give no quarter, lesson after drear lesson. Fight to make it exciting. Don’t let them read. It slows it down. Declaim it. Keep it slow as you’re reading. Draw out every moment of drama for them, and stay focused on the end point and how good you’re going to feel when you ask them what it was about, and one of them says: “Well it was about men, sir, and how stupid they are, sir. And it was about dreams, sir. And it was … it was … it was about everything really, sir."
While everyone else is reading the patronising mulch that makes for an adult’s idea of what kids can cope with – Stone Cold or Two Weeks with the Queen – try a bit of rebellion on for size: read the whole of Dracula, or experiment with The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Not out of some misplaced, traditionalist, patrician impulse to maintain the literary tradition; but because they’re just far better books.
Last year a kid I taught, James, who didn’t know he was good at English, told me the reason he didn’t like reading Conrad, initially at least, was because he’d never read a ‘proper’ book before. He’d done a lot of worksheets, but never read a book of any lasting quality. He was sixteen.
If your students are only ever going to read one book in their lives, then I think there’s a reasonable argument that we have a responsibility as English teachers to make sure that that one book is a good one.
My notions of what constitutes a ‘literary heritage’ were formed by my choice of A Level subjects: I did English, French and German – I was going to be a linguist. Fortunately, the courses included a great deal of good literature, so I have no problem about including Goethe, Brecht, Camus, Victor Hugo, Lamartine, and Jacques Prévert as part of my ‘heritage’. I become impatient with the tendency of nations and linguistic groups to use their ‘literary heritage’ as a kind of cultural glue that helps their national identity hold together. Of course, I’m delighted (and feel myself very fortunate) to be heir to a literary tradition that includes so many superb British and English-speaking writers, but I really do think that we should be discussing ‘heritage’ in terms of world writing. In any case, most of our ‘heritage’ texts are rooted in Greek, Roman and Judaeo-Christian thinking: ‘Englishness’ as a touchstone for inclusion in an ‘English’ heritage would probably limit us to ‘The Battle of Maldon’ and a few other texts from that era. How many of Shakespeare’s stories are pinched from foreign sources?
All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.
Multi-culturalism – there’s another big question in terms of ‘heritage’, and we aren’t going to sort that out until we’ve decided where we stand on the whole question of our being a multi-cultural society. We all have kids from other cultures in our classrooms. I’ll guarantee that very little of their literary heritage ever gets an airing, let alone an acknowledgement. How appropriate is it to impose a dismal writer like Conan Doyle, over, let’s say, even a tiny fragment of the rich corpus of Bangladeshi poetry? Are we interested in teaching literature, or in pressing a nationalist agenda on unwilling recipients?
What about ‘the canon’ – the good stuff that everyone’s supposed to have read? What gives a text canonical or ’heritage’ status? This is a minefield. It’s tempting to go with Matthew Arnold, and erect criteria along the lines of his ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’. It sounds inclusive, but is at the same time useless, as no two English teachers are ever going to agree about what constitutes ‘the best’.
Enough hard questions. However we define ‘literary heritage’, there are texts within it that would benefit our pupils. One approach is to put together a chronologically organised reading list, but that could easily become box-ticking. It’s understanding that we want, and a sense that the learner is building connections between texts, seeing influences and relationships.
Writing just before the General Election, when we’ve been badgered from all sides about making the ‘correct’ decision, Aristotle’s concept of correctness in either poetry or politics seems unsustainable. At least we know where the party leaders stand. The National Poetry Day site tells us that David Cameron chose Wilfred Owen as his hero: 'I still remember the first time I read his poems and the incredible power and anger about the First World War. For me, they were literally an eye-opener.' (Literally, David? Were you normally asleep during English lessons?) Demonstrating that the tussle was for the middle ground, Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg both laid claim to Blake. By the time you read this, some of them will have lost their innocence and tasted some of the bitter fruits of experience. These poets, of course, are part of our official Literary Heritage, so quite safe ground for politicians – until students who have done their homework point out the harsh things that Blake said about the establishment and that Owen wrote about jingoism.
There s not the same kind of correctness in poetry as in politics, or indeed any other art.
'Heritage' implies something rather too cosy – but teaching is rarely the literary equivalent of a stroll around a stately home, concluding with a few trinkets and embellished with comforting quotations from the gift shop. Teachers are constantly on the look out for new ways to play old texts, inspirations that will lift the words from the page. Sometimes it's a simple idea that seems so obvious you wonder why it hasn't been thought of before. At a recent NATE meeting, Stefen Plummer mentioned that a colleague at Heathfield School asked her class to create Facebook pages for each of the characters in Pride and Prejudice. As it's a girls' school, Mr Darcy soon collected a lot of friends – though I hope they were not uncritical. Rebecca Darch, who's involved in NATE's Learning Platform Project has also found that technology helps. Her Year 7 class are keeping journals on the school's learning platform as they read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Rebecca has discovered that this threaded discussion has given students new freedom in their writing, since they know that their comments are shared not just with their teacher but with the whole class. As one girl wrote: 'I could share my thoughts and feelings about the novel and see what others think and feel.' A full report on this project, which involves fifteen teachers, will appear on the NATE website later in the year.
Already on the NATE site, Angus Weir's case study on Teaching the literary heritage describes students creating short video trailers for The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In the process they had to think about both the structure and form of the text itself and how they would translate it into a new medium. In the process, they grappled with Stevenson's language as well as media terms such as signifier and connotation and were able to make interesting comparisons between the original and their films. It's part of the 'Hard to Teach' project that I've mentioned before; you'll find more on using ICT to engage with literature in several of the other case studies.
NATE Conference in July has, of course, plenty to offer on literature old and new. Members of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Bill Buckhurst from Shakespeare's Globe will tell us how to treat the classroom as a rehearsal room. Will fights between the rival companies be staged? Or why not see if Beowulf beckons? Gill Woodland will be exploring exciting, innovative and accessible ways of engaging with a really old favourite. As if that weren't enough, Baba Brinkman, 'former tree-planter, rap poet and Chaucerian' will entertain (and doubtless educate) us on Saturday night. Places are going fast, so don't delay – book today!
By then we should know about the new government's education policies. Coming back to this the morning after the election it seems that voters, as a kind of poetic justice, have selected the Keats option: 'Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.'
Some years ago, my English teacher told us we would be studying Bleak House as our next A Level text. He then expressed his utter envy of us, all on the cusp of reading it for the first time. He also managed to get us excited about reading Dickens, who he insisted is part of our literary heritage. “Dickens is a cracking storyteller,” we were told.
This was the hook – storytelling. At the end of the day, so many great novels and plays that we consider to be part of our heritage are fantastic stories. For many pupils with SEN who may find the original texts too difficult to access, they can still appreciate the story, so it’s important to make the stories accessible.
Dickens is just one example of a brilliant storyteller. Bleak House has enough mystery to keep an ardent detective thriller fan happy. For a tragic romance we need look no further than Romeo and Juliet or Tess of the d’Urbervilles. For fantasy fans, C.S. Lewis’s magical world of Narnia is inspiring – plenty of stories of children being transported into another world for action adventures.
A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.
Lots of great stories have been televised or made into films, so they become instantly accessible as stories. Some novels have been adapted for the stage so opportunities for trips to watch the stage version become available.
Another good way to explore how these stories, novelists, poets and playwrights have become part of our cultural heritage is to visit the places they wrote about or lived in. Trips can be great for inspiring pupils to engage with the texts by finding out about the stories behind the stories. Most teenagers will enjoy knowing that Wordsworth and Coleridge enjoyed a ‘smoke’ in Kendal and a picnic in the hills could be fun; a trip to the Globe theatre or Stratford upon Avon would be great for a flavour of Shakespeare; Stonehenge sets the haunting scene for the end of Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
It’s fair to say that it’s not just British writers whose works are significant and for many will be seen as part of our literary heritage – works written in English perhaps that have inspired generations of subsequent writers, or great works that have been translated for us all to appreciate. The themes these stories address often transcend geography and communicate to everyone. However, if you’re studying Hemingway, Flaubert or Tolstoy, it’s less easy to do a day trip to their home towns.
The National Curriculum for English at KS4 requires students ‘to understand the nature, significance and influence over time of texts from the English literary heritage’. According to the programme of study, this ‘includes authors with an enduring appeal that transcends the period in which they were writing. For example, the novels of Jane Austen or the plays of Shakespeare continue to be widely read, studied and reinterpreted in print and on screen for contemporary audiences.’
Of course, there is a list of approved pre-twentieth century and twentieth century writers who make up the ‘literary heritage’ according to the National Curriculum but perhaps each of us should make more of our personal literary heritage: the particular texts that have been passed on to us from a previous era and that we would choose to pass on to future generations. Most English teachers must be able to think of at least one book that they inherited from a parent or teacher which helped them to see the world in a different way and they must have at least one book that they hope will have the same effect on a particular student or even a whole class!
The idea of choosing your ‘inheritance texts’ reminds me of the ‘inheritance tracks’ section of Saturday Live, broadcast weekly on Radio 4. If you’re familiar with this programme, you’ll know there’s a regular slot where celebrities, or otherwise notable people, are invited to select a meaningful track that they feel they’ve ‘inherited’ and one that they’d like to pass on to their own children. You can listen to recent Saturday Live programmes on BBC iPlayer or read the sometimes surprising, inheritance tracks of a diverse range of past guests from the show, from Nigella Lawson to Dima Yeremenko, the ‘magic dog whisperer of North London’, on this Saturday Live blog (which is no longer updated).
Perhaps students could be encouraged to reflect on their own literary or musical heritage, either as a speaking and listening task (as if they were guests on Saturday Live) or as the focus for a piece of original writing.
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