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Literature in School

Always at this time of year, GCSE students up and down the country are being urged to remember key quotations for exams. ‘It will help if you can remember the important ones’ their teachers will say, and so they plough their way through snippets of Shakespeare plays and nineteenth century novels striving for the highest grades.

 

This request is in direct competition with the maths formulas they need to learn, along with multiple French verb tables and the dates of historical battles. The pressure on young minds is immense during exam season and it does not surprise me that some of them find English Literature a chore. Mutterings of ‘what’s the point’ ‘out of date’ and ‘boring’ are not unusual to hear, so teachers need a pretty strong case to prove it’s worth the effort.


Love of English

Here at ASPA it goes without saying that we are all avid readers and enjoy playing around with words but I wonder, if we never studied Literature as part of our own school curriculum, would we still have sought it out?


My own experience stems from primary school days when, around eight years of age, I won a poetry competition. It must have been organised by my teacher because I remember being taken to the library one evening to read my poem out in front of a group of strangers and was given a certificate by the mayor. My photo was in the local newspaper, and it felt like a big achievement. A couple of years later, I remember a creative writing lesson where the teacher lit a candle and we had to describe the flame; the next day she read mine out to the class.  I can’t remember any other positive reinforcements like these in any other subject, so English was firmly secured as my favourite.


My inspiration to teach today comes from the fact that there will be other pupils experiencing a similar thing. Maybe their English teacher is the only one to praise their work, or perhaps for them a class trip to the theatre and being handed a copy of an old novel feels like a gift. Far beyond studying the obligatory character traits and themes that they need to to pass an exam, these students will have already discovered the pleasure of losing themselves in a good book or allowing a stage full of actors to inspire their imagination.


Difficult themes.

School texts also bring about the opportunity to discuss uncomfortable themes in a professional and neutral environment. In my lessons recently we have talked about rape, religion, drug abuse and disability in a way that would not be the same if I knew the individuals on a more personal level. We analyse quotations systematically, trying to understand the writer’s intentions in bringing these taboo subjects to light.


Students are encouraged to express themselves openly in written exams and describe the impression that certain words leave on them as readers. English Literature helps them to do this is in a safe way and, as long as they can back up their arguments with sound reasoning, their opinion is as valid as anyone else’s. These skills give young people the opportunity to evaluate their thoughts and feelings on hard-to-talk-about topics in their own minds, even if they choose never to mention them again outside the lesson.


Memorable Quotes.

My yearly plea of ‘try to remember these few quotations at least’ is never met with enthusiasm, but I do inwardly smile in the knowledge that so many of these phrases will stay with the learners forever.

For me, autumn continues to be the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’, and I have no doubt that many of my reluctant learners will surprise themselves one day by quoting a line from Shakespeare out of nowhere. ‘O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!” is a particular favourite of mine from Macbeth.


Atticus’s line in To Kill a Mocking Bird is a common throw away response in class quizzes: ‘You rarely win, but you sometimes do,’ and there is definite distaste in revision sessions when readers recall the context of the ‘sweet young things’ from Robert Cormier’s Heroes. 


If you know any sixteen-year- old studying the poem War Photographer, you can bet they know the line ‘The reader’s eyeballs prick with tears between the bath and pre-lunch beers.’ Because, like everything else we read, there is a whole story behind a single line. 


What of the future?

Nowadays, if a student tells me they can’t wait to burn their English books the minute the exam is over I might commend them on reaching such a decision. I will respect the fact they have made the choice of which subjects they want to pursue further and which ones they want to leave behind.  But before the conversation is over, I will be sure to tell them to put their novels away in a corner instead of destroying them. ‘You never know,’ I will suggest, ‘You might want to read them again one day.


Although they will laugh at such an outrageous idea, I still believe it to be true. Just as I can remember how to order sausage and chips in German (having never been to Germany in my life) I am certain that the time will come when a random quote from one of their literature texts pops into their heads without warning. That might be all it takes to tempt them to search out that book again.

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5 Comments


I love the comment, buried in your entertaining post, that "there is a whole story behind a single line." Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a short story in only six words. Outcome: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”.

Six word stories are quite a challenge, but satisfying when you read them, so easy to finish, like chips, once you've had one you want another.


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If you have any more six word stories, please share!

Hemmingway's is so thought provoking - I think he was a great writer.


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Rob Jones
Rob Jones
Apr 25

I really enjoyed your blog, Diane.

I genuinely believe that education is the answer to almost everything.

One of the many rewards of working with students is that now and again you witnessed your passion being passed on. In the first half of my career, I worked in schools in colleges and was lucky to teach the subjects I had graduated in: history/art &design/art appreciation. Later, I held a strategic manager’s role for the government and local authority designing solutions for those more on the periphery of society. When I employed teachers, I had to tell them that each of us would have to teach at least 4 GCSEs! My love of English literature had me rapidly volunteering to claim…

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Rob Jones
Rob Jones
Apr 25
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To be honest it was only for those who were capable as our community consisted of anything from kids in prison to those in hospices sadly. I didn’t do much teaching myself as I had so much on but made a point of being in a meeting if anyone mentioned languages! I had a wonderful team, almost all women.

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