On choosing texts…

It’s been a while since I thought about this, but a chance twitter post by @cazzwebbo who blogs on matters paedagogical made me think.
She evaluates OMAM and Jekyll and Hyde as texts for KS4 use.
Her point is that texts need to be thematically enriching as well as being well written tales.
In the light of various government requirements, I have been recently looking at the texts we offer to see how they fit the SMSC/British Values criteria. I don’t claim any special powers and magic touches, but am quite pleased with the outcome.

At KS3:

Year 7 open with a geographical tour of the country and a wide range of literature from a wide range of periods. It is work in progress and some ideas can be found here. After that they work on a dramatised version of some of the Canterbury Tales. Even here, amidst the “bearded lady” jokes and red hot pokers, the Pardoner caries a clear moral message regarding greed as the root of all evil… but also allows one to look at the hypocrisy of plausible authority figures. From there the students move to A Christmas Carol. Dickens’ story can be read as a cosy Christmas tale, but that would ignore the coruscating layer of social criticism within. Year 7 are not too young to be exposed to the concept of context of creation and reception. Handled with care, this message will be remembered for a long time. Their next textual exposure is to a Shakespeare Sonnet module. Discussions of love and the nature of love are certainly not beyond this age-group. The language introduces Shakespeare in bite-size chunks of 14 line gems and the discussions take on a maturity beyond their years. By the time they work on Fran Nantongwe’s wonderful Quest for the Cure creative writing module in the summer, they have had a strong foundation of serious and highly relevant thematic discussion without resorting to “relevant” texts.

In Year 8 They read a whole Shakespeare play (teacher’s choice) and study Gothic Literature. Perhaps a more straightforward year. The poetry module works with modern interpretations of the Odyssey and their original versions. The theme here is depiction of women and challenging the depiction of the (male) hero stereotype.
Year 9 begin with a term based in the 1914-18 war. Drama (journey’s end) and poetry are the teaching areas. The themes explored are strong and well known here. After the holiday we work on YA fiction. This is a teacher’s choice area – I like to use The Knife of Never letting Go though it may be time for a new text. Otherwise we try to link to the Carnegie lists of the previous year. This is work in progress this year with new texts emerging next Spring. In the summer, the shadow of IGCSE falls on the year-group and non-fiction study starts. However with the range of thematic engagement we have tried to deliver in yrs 7-9, students are ready for this challenge and have a solid awareness of many of the themes which will emerge.

KS4 is about IGCSE – yes I-GCSE. I teach in a private school and am not hidebound by league table fever. The new GCSEs are a huge improvement and their predecessors, but I bemoan the lack of bravery in the new set text choices.
We still offer Of Mice and Men and i make no apologies for teaching a book with such deep and wide ranging thematic weight. Bigotry, poverty, hard work, cruelty, women in society… the list goes on and on. Yes, it is short. As a result, the thematic power of the text is not diluted but hits with an impact that few can miss. An excellent text. It runs with An Inspector Calls and Macbeth – hardly free of context and discussion. The non-fiction anthology from Edexcel provides strong thematic discussion and links well with the choice of poetry – often they work together as in the case of A Passage to Africa and Mother in a Refugee Camp or War Photographer to throw up strong and passionate classroom debate. In London, where the issue of refugees, immigration and homelessness seems to be more visible every day, such texts are immensely powerful. In a teaching environment where we are required to show an absence of bias and bigotry and to hold up the notions of fairness, honesty and a passion for the rights of man, this all works very well indeed.

The preparation in the earlier years is vital to the success of KS4. So I agree with Carol: ensure your texts are chosen with an eye to the thematic weight. It not about short term Government requirements. It is about preparing children for life.