Now I am no longer a HOD of English I can explore ideas freely and not necessarily worry if they would form a teachable programme. I can indulge my thoughts.
We work with the OCR A level which lays out a good choice of text throughout and allows free choice in the 2 NEAs. Currently our teaching in the exams focuses on American Literature and the pairing of Doll’s House with The Merchant’s Tale. 12 Night is our Shakespeare. I really like this grouping – we allow for a lot of focus on issues of gender and of race, alongside plenty of Marxist perspective and emerging eco-crit in Gatsby and Huck Finn. I know Huck is contentious. I know the language can be upsetting. I happen to feel that the benefits of offering this text for study are enormous: one is forced, by the language and by the central moral dilemma facing Huck, to foreground issues of Race for discussion. It also helps to draw attention to Fitzgerald’s whitewashed depiction of an othered, Central European ‘Jazz’ Age. Frankly it is Gatsby I would reject simply because Fitzgerald has neatly excised Harlem, the Harlem Renaissance and any form of expression of Race from the narrative. It is hard to discuss the absence of an idea when exploring the text. Huck challenges, yes, but it also rewards.
Given this choice in the American lists, I would, in a dream teaching world, work with the following in the 3 NEA choices:
Selected Poems of Langston Hughes
Small Island, in the NT version of Levy’s novel prepared by Helen Edmundson.
First I believe that an A level course which might prepare our students for the study of Literature at University should work with recent work – both Adichie and Levy/Edmundson date from the last decade. Small Island in this form, from last year. An A level course spanning Chaucer and these texts represents ‘literature’ fully and allows us to consider whether anything has really changed in the intervening 600+ years in terms of gender roles and the approach to marriage.
Then, I like the internal links provided. Hughes allows us to discuss the missing context of Gatsby – Harlem renaissance and the development of Jazz and a Balck voice in Literature. It fills a gap in the US lit texts and can be sued as wider reading in that element. Adichie has cropped up in the IGCSE anthology. Her TED talk on the ‘Danger of the Single Story’ is a neat balance with Americanah and so this might serve well as an introduction to A level teaching. Also the idea of ‘immigrant experience’ runs through this text and the Levy/Edmundson allowing a good range of comparative themes to be developed. Lastly the Levy/Edmundson is a state of the nation work which calls out for all readers in this country to examine their response to and understanding of immigration to the UK in the post-war years. Yes, it might be good to use a play looking at this issue through other eyes – Asian/East African perhaps – and I would love to hear other ideas.
Since I teach IGCSE, I will stick with this model here. We deliver Of Mice and Men alongside Priestley and Macbeth. In my view, OMAM is a societal critique of a nation about to break, filled with damaged and broken characters in search of some form of recovery. To consider the treatment of Crooks is vital just as it is to consider the nuanced messaging around Curley’s Wife. I find it interesting that the only character in the book to weaponise the N word, using it in direct address to crush Crooks’ spirit is Curley’s Wife. With the central focus on the direction to be taken in a civilised society giving a good link in discussion to Priestley’s models of the caring Socialist society and the cruel Capitalist one, the text works well and I am glad to have it.
The area in which Race and Diversity is well served in the syllabus is on the Anthology of Poetry, Short Stories and Non-Fiction. I have mentioned the Adichie ted talk which opens the anthology and it is joined in the non-fiction section by Benjamin Zephaniah writing on Dyslexia and growing up Black in Birmingham. George Alagiah discusses the issues around disaster journalism in Africa and Adleine Yen Mah’s Chinese Cinderella concludes this section. A pretty good mixture for any teacher who wishes to develop and extend beyond ‘teaching the text’.
The Short Stories are Euro-centric, true – it is a shame, I think that the Kate Chopin is not something like Desiree’s Baby – but Language students will need to prepare poetry by Angelou (Still I Rise) and Moniza Alvi alongside Wilfred Owen, Tony Harrison and Robert Frost.
Students of Literature have a group of 16 poems to study. Alice Walker, Sujata Bhatt, Imtiaz Dharker and John Agard are in this group which moves otherwise from Shakespeare via Keats to U.A. Fanthorpe and Carol Ann Duffy. I like this collection and whilst we can always wish for more – this works well and taken as a whole gives excellent opportunity to look at Race and issues around racial identity.
It is KS3 which bothers me in this context – I would not wish to lose a lot of what we do – Myths, introducing Shakespeare via Sonnets in Y7, the own choice play in Y8 (great success here for my colleague Lucy Aitchison using Othello…), the use of A Christmas Carol in y7 at… Christmas. There are few better texts to highlight the cruelty and hypocrisy of capitalist society… And in Y9 I love the WW1 material which has now been dropped from much of the prescribed teaching elsewhere. Which leaves own choice novels in Y9. Currently we work with YA in this module. Texts like Noughts and Crosses rub shoulders with The Knife of Never Letting Go and we can indulge in a bit of ‘media studies lite’ if we wish – I do. Yet even in the Ness, Race and othering is never far away – the treatment of the Spackle – a race semi-exterminated and appallingly treated by the male, white supremacists of Prentisstown opens the door to discussion each time I teach the text.
In short, I am thinking aloud. People ask for a rethinking of the curriculum to ‘teach anti-racism’. I suppose I am thinking that very little adjustment is required if teachers are open to the possibilities of the texts in front of us.
I enjoyed the thought experiment too. Though I have no idea when I will have time to prepare the texts in question should my HOD take me up on this. WHa tw ended to remember though is that ta curriculum is a tapestry of ideas worth teaching. Each time we add, we need to remove. It is often a question of balance.