Posts Tagged ‘teaching literature’

On the joys of teaching English

March 7, 2019

Every now and then, I remember I was a teacher once. When I meet up with former colleagues who are still working, I sigh with relief that I don’t have to return to school for training days, and listen to the ‘leadership team’ witter on about targets and initiatives and I don’t know what else, and I feel briefly sorry for those who still do have to… I also remember how different it was on the following day, when the students returned and the real work of a teacher began again – how much I loved it!

Things that I really enjoyed: reading books together in class. That was still possible in secondary school and we all loved it: reading around the class, sometimes everyone in turn, sometimes volunteers, sometimes me. We could and did pause to discuss all sorts of things: plot, character, language, how a writer tells a good story, why x happens and not y, why a writer does things a certain way and not another. All kinds of opportunities for different kinds of writing arose at various points in a novel. And everyone could express opinions about all sorts of things, practising listening and responding, learning to argue, and to support opinions with evidence…

Sometimes I would get students to present a book they had recently read to the class: a brief introduction and then read out a carefully chosen extract; explain what their opinion of the book was, and why, and finally take questions from their class-mates. Not everyone found this easy, but I felt, from a very early stage in my career as a teacher, that good speaking and listening skills were probably going to be of much greater use and importance to my students in the future than writing skills…

When we got on to individual talks to the class, we had a great time: choose your subject, and give an illustrated five-minute presentation to the class, then take questions. It was often an astonishing confidence-building exercise for students who were not very strong at English, as they used the opportunity to be experts in their own field in front of the class. As time went by, health and safety curtailed their choice of options somewhat, and having livestock in the classroom sometimes presented management issues… but I always learned lots, and I know the students did, too. I still think the best ever talk came from a GCSE student who was a keen fencer: she spoke confidently and demonstrated her skills effectively, using a male student whom she didn’t very much like as her opponent for the practical parts of her talk: he took it all in very good part. The talk filled an entire 40-minute lesson; nobody was bored, and she naturally received full marks for her efforts.

Discussions and also formal debates featured regularly, and I had an understanding with students that no topic was off-limits as long as they could approach it sensibly and maturely, and respect others’ different opinions and their right to express them: you were allowed to disagree as long as you did it respectfully and explained your reasons… I can only remember a couple of occasions in nearly thirty years when it was necessary to close down a discussion because some could not manage these rules.

Of course, students had to write, as well as speak and read. One of my favourite activities came out of reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with Year 8 students (age 12-13). If you can make the book work, it’s a real challenge for them: nineteenth-century language and behaviour and dealing with issues of race, childhood, schooling and lots more. The book has everything: truanting, running away from home, a murder, romance, getting lost in a cave, finding a real fortune… and there is an amazing writing opportunity immediately after the murder: produce the front page of the town paper the day after that event. There’s writing the story, editing and improving it, working out how much the reporter can know and find out, compared with what Tom and Huck have seen, and then you can go into an IT suite and they can design and produce and print their front page.

The skills of essay-writing come to the fore as students approach public examinations, and over the years I evolved a tactic which they seemed to find effective and helpful: the whole class together would plan an essay. I’d take them through the entire process stage-by-stage, from analysing the title and working out what an examiner might expect, through brainstorming and then organising and sequencing their ideas, followed by selecting evidence, and then crafting an effective introduction and conclusion. It would all appear on the whiteboard, colour-coded with different pens; we could pause the process and discuss any aspect of it that anyone wanted to, and we could also time the different parts of the activity so that students could work out how they might effectively allocate their time in an exam room. We needed a good double lesson – 80 minutes – to do the whole thing, and if time allowed, the last thing was to practise and discuss a range of opening sentences. It was pretty exhausting for all or us: the class being attentive and working against the clock, and me, controlling and managing everything so it all came together in the allocated time.

I used to enjoy giving work back to students. I’ve read some unbelievable nonsense lately about re-marking and triple marking and written dialogue between teacher and student and thought to myself, ‘How can any of that be justified in terms of time?’. Although I wasn’t particularly proud of it, my semi-illegible handwriting did me favours; I regularly did write lengthy and detailed comments and advice on students’ work, and they often had to work quite hard to decipher my runes. They asked each other first and when that failed, called me over: they actually wanted to know what I’d written, and I could briefly expand and clarify. And, of course, there were extra oral comments as I gave work back, perhaps reading out particularly good bits before I hurled exercise books back across the room towards their owners…

A good deal of being a teacher – an English teacher, certainly – is about being an actor, as perhaps you have deduced from the above: confidence builds up over time, as does the very necessary ability to be reflective and critical of what happens in your classroom, and to adapt and modify when circumstances dictate.

I particularly loved working with sixth-formers, for they really kept me on my toes; even if I knew my stuff – and I did – I never knew from what angle their questions or comments might come. Keeping one step ahead of them was exhausting, as well as very satisfying. They got special treatment in some ways: we were a little less formal with each other, and we always set the room out in a circle to create a seminar-style atmosphere, as well as to emphasis equality, rather than use the serried ranks of desks or tables that larger classes required. There was tea and mince pies at Christmas, too. Practical criticism – working with unseen texts – was what I liked most of all, feeling more and more the enabler rather than the teacher as the two years of the course ticked away and they all in their different ways became more perceptive and confident as interpreters and critics of literature…

There is no better profession – and I think that word is so important, and so under-respected nowadays – than teaching. I have been very fortunate in my life’s work.

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Some problems with teaching literature…

May 15, 2016

Back in the old days, there used to be a genuine unseen paper at A Level, where any text might turn up – prose, poetry or drama – for the hapless student to analyse and write intelligibly about. It doesn’t seem to exist now; any unseen text will be linked to a certain theme, and thus present more clues and information to the student. Preparing students for the unseen paper entailed two years of carefully selecting texts to explore in class, to analyse and deconstruct. I used to love teaching it, partly because it allowed me to bring some of my favourite texts along and introduce them.

Until, that is, a student one day bemoaned the need to analyse poems: it took all the fun and enjoyment out of them; one could never go back and read them with innocence, as it were, without the weight of critical analysis overburdening everything… the enjoyment had gone. Good point. The smart-arse answer would have been along the lines of not being there to enjoy, but to study. I bit my lip.

I’d never looked at it like that; it stopped me short and made me think, and I find myself coming back to that student’s point every so often. There is (or was) an innocence to reading, a pure pleasure and enjoyment, especially encountering a text for the first time; you could wallow in a story for the delight of the plot, finish it and think ‘that was good!’ And stop there.

I don’t know when the insidious analysis started; presumably when we were being prepared for O Level back in the dim and distant past, and it went on from there: more detailed analysis at sixth form level; deconstruction in greater depth at university; original analysis and criticism at research level. And where had the innocent pleasure gone?

Because you do end up taking a text to bits. You look at words and why they were chosen, at sounds, at rhyme, rhythm and metre if it’s verse, as well as all the poetic devices; you look at pace, tone and mood. You get down to the detail of what makes a text work, what makes it affect you the way it does. And all this is, to me, fascinating.

Eventually I came to realise that for me that original, innocent pleasure hadn’t gone. I could still manage to read, at least first time around, with that original innocence, and not allow too much analytical thought to creep in, or even suppress it. I gradually came to understand that my studies had provided me with a toolkit that allowed me to get more from what I was reading, to think more deeply, more clearly – and perhaps feel superior to those who didn’t? Perhaps I was deluding myself. To be honest, I can never know: rewinding the clock isn’t possible. But I do know that I really enjoy and value what I’ve been taught and what I’ve learnt over the years in terms of how to get the most out of what I read, making connections and links to all sorts of other texts, writers, places and ideas.

In terms of my students and my teaching, I realised that somehow I needed to try and allow them to retain some of the integrity of the text, and this wasn’t easy. It meant that there needed to be a lot more dialogue in the classroom – less of me teaching – a lot of encouragement to express opinion and personal response, and I needed to give permission not to like, or even to loathe, a text. With a poem, it was relatively easy at the end of a session to pause and re-read the poem in its entirety to bring it all back together as a poem after having previously spent an hour disembowelling it; with a novel or a play, that’s not so easy. But I do think that the relatively recent increased emphasis on personal response in examinations has made this easier. And there was always the pleasure when a student offered a new interpretation or meaning, which had never occurred to you…

On teaching literature (3)

March 23, 2014

It’s only natural to want to share one’s love of reading, but teaching it isn’t quite that simple: I came across many students who didn’t enjoy reading, and who had far more exciting and interesting things that they preferred to spend their time on. So, a certain reality check there: come on down out of that ivory tower…  But there were also students who hadn’t yet met the books that spoke to them, and it was wonderful to see this finally happen: “It’s not the sort of book I’d choose to read myself, but it was really good…I’m glad we read it.” That was enough, for starters.

Boys and girls, male and female students enjoy different things from books, not mutually exclusive, but definitely in need of consideration, as well as tackling gender stereotypes. I always found a great way in was via their own reading: getting them to present a book to the class, read from it, review it, respond to questions on it… it was often astonishing to see what they chose, what they found in a book I’d read and hadn’t noticed, what the interest and reaction of their peers was. I suppose it was all about establishing reading as a normal and enjoyable activity.

Shared enjoyment of texts and introducing students to the idea that you could explore and interpret a book was the key in the early secondary years, where I always felt it was also essential to embed the idea of different people having different opinions and our need to respect those, as well as the idea that in our subject, there were no ‘right’ answers, only your answer and how you justified it. Some loved this, others couldn’t really cope with the freedom…

As we moved towards examination courses, the texts became more adult, the issues they raised more complex and in need of plenty of time to explore: I always insisted on reading every word of a novel together. Every class was different, meaning that teaching the same books year after year never became boring. Of course, the choice of texts was crucial: there had to be some way of linking a text to their experience of life. To Kill A Mockingbird allowed discussion of the idea of justice, growing up, parents; Lord of the Flies meant you could explore the issues of society, rules, law and order, the dark side to the human psyche. And Romeo and Juliet: first love, parents limiting one’s life… where to stop?

At sixth form level, the depth and detail of a writer’s craft emerged even more fully, as well as the development and articulation of personal response to much more challenging texts; the real students emerged through their willingness to read more widely around the narrow syllabus framework, as well as to begin engaging with critics, and to see themselves as potential equals. The joy of teaching for me here was most profound: I had to work as hard as the students, in terms of explaining and justifying my interpretations, countering theirs, arguing and defending my ideas… it kept my brain alive and alert. The greatest revelation for me as a sixth form student was that I could know as much as my teachers, that my ideas were potentially as valid as theirs… I had grown up; I had arrived… magic!

On teaching literature (2)

March 20, 2014

Unlike many other subjects, with the study of literature a personal reaction is both inevitable, and also desirable. As I suggested in my previous post, we usually start with a gut reaction to something, and to develop our personal response and be able to articulate it is a key part of the study of literature. I often found it necessary to give students ‘permission’ to dislike a text. Because something is labelled literature doesn’t mean we have to like it. You’ll find my confession of disliking and/or ignoring various classic authors here.

I think the important trait to develop is that of maintaining an open mind for as long as possible. I’m reminded of teaching Charles Frazier‘s Cold Mountain to a groups of sixth form students, one of whom developed a loathing for the novel (which I really like) almost at the outset: it was quite a struggle, but by the end, there emerged a (grudging) admission that there was much that was worthwhile and clever in that text.

Poetry was always a particularly difficult form to teach successfully. There’s inevitably a gut reaction, and I find it harder to get beyond this than with other literary forms. My first rule was never to teach a poem that I didn’t like, or couldn’t find something to appreciate in, or, failing that, (exam syllabi are prescriptive!) I would openly dislike a poem and explain why, even as I taught students about the technical devices and ideas it contained. And yet, there was always a richness to poetry which it was a joy to see students gradually tuning in to… language used in so many different ways, often the use of rhythm and rhyme, the imagery, and all that before one even got on to the ideas. I’m particularly reminded of classes where we explored the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins or John Donne, where there is just so much cleverness packed into a short space.

Everyone’s response to poetry is very different and you can’t get very far without allowing and encouraging this. Drama presented different issues: it’s obviously written first and foremost for performance, and teaching it in a school in a small city quite  some distance from live productions was hard. I found that a quick read in order to grasp the outlines of plot, character and important ideas first worked well, if possible followed by a film or TV performance to bring it all to life; then one could begin to explore the detail of the dramatist’s craft and evaluate her/his success. The text can be brought to life in the classroom in different ways, but the entirety has to (at least) be read aloud.

With novels, one was often hampered by time constraints: ideally the entirety would be read aloud in class. This was possible until one reached sixth form, when there was just too much to get through in too little time; then, one had to be selective, using representative extracts to explore the whole.

Literature needs to be read, to be heard, to be discussed. It needs to be the subject of argument and disagreement, because it’s clearly open to individual response and judgement; there can be no ‘party line’, no ‘received opinion’ to which everyone has to subscribe. I felt that my job (for that is what it was, in the end!) was to enable as many students as possible to explore and articulate their response to as wide a range of reading as possible. And I loved it…

On teaching literature (1)

March 19, 2014

I’ve been retired for about three years now, and I still miss teaching literature to school students. I have been thinking about what, exactly, it has all meant for me.

I hoovered books up as a child; I read my sisters’ library books as well as my own, often went daily to get new books, and by the age of eleven was allowed (by special dispensation) to access the adults’ library, as I’d exhausted the children’s section. In those innocent years, reading was about plot, the excitement of the story, and wanting to find out how it ended. And there was a gut response – liking, enjoyment, rushing off for the next book by a particular author.

At a certain point I discovered re-reading, and what that can bring: not being plot-driven, because I knew how the story ended, I could read in a different way and notice things I’d missed out on first time around. When I came to teach, I discovered that many students never re-read books and couldn’t imagine why on earth one might want to; those who did re-read shared the same new joys as I did, and through teaching literature, often for examination, I was able to introduce students to the joys of second and third and n-th time around.

This is where I reach the core of teaching and learning, in the world of literature. You have to look in close detail; you have to seek out things you might no otherwise notice and you have to analyse and make judgements about plot, character and themes in a text. You have to look closely at how a writer uses language, how s/he can manipulate the reader, how any novel is, in fact and obviously, a construct from start to finish, made up by the writer (a fiction, for etymologists out there), who makes choices all along the way about plot and character and language.

From all of this I always felt, and I think students agreed, one enjoyed a deeper and richer encounter with a text. And yet there was always a lurking suspicion that all the analysis, the deconstruction and interrogation of a text, took away from its magic, the spontaneity of enjoyment per se, the potential for escape in a good read… however you put it. There is truth in this, and, for me, the gains outweigh the losses. I’m sure I have never read a novel with those innocent child’s eyes since I began to study literature. When I taught analysis of poetry, there was usually the opportunity at the end of a lesson, to re-read a poem one final time and try and allow it to be just the poem, pulling it together after all the analysis.

In the end, I feel that the study of literature provides a toolkit which one can retain through one’s life, which allows one to get more from one’s reading, if one wants to, and allows one to share more of the enjoyment with others.

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