Saturday, 19 January 2013

Books that I'd like to teach

When it comes to teaching literature we all have our favourites: books that we have taught many times and feel incredibly comfortable with.  Take you pick from the list: To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, The Crucible, An Inspector Calls, Death of a Salesman, Romeo and Juliet, Stone Cold, Touching the Void, The Great Gatsby etc etc.

But what of those books that we love, but feel we are not allowed to teach?  GCSEs and A-Levels seem to have harsh strictures on what we can deliver to students, and often this forces our hand away from gems that we've loved for decades, books that we know inside out, books that we could teach to a busload of Millwall fans without losing their interest.  Perhaps we need to make a change here and take a few literary risks.  After all, GCSEs and A-Level syllabuses are more flexible than they seem these days, and there's always KS3...

I remember teaching The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time to a Year 8 class several years ago, when I was an Independent school drone.  It was on the Year 8 syllabus, which surprised me (there's a wheelbarrow-load of bad language in that books, including the c-bomb), and so I built a tidy little scheme around it.  Goodness, but their attitude to the book was incredible.  I've never taught a text that has been so eagerly, so immediately lapped up as this one.  Once we'd established the salient facts about the narrator, Christopher - most importantly the nature of his Aspergers - the students understood everything, even the necessity for all the swearing.  It gave them an insight into authorial choices and intentions which set them up for the rest of the year.  It even gave them a chance to understand the term 'post-modern', which they guzzled up with relish.  So much enjoyable teaching and learning from a book that doesn't typically feature on school syllabuses must give us pause for thought.  Perhaps it's time to cast off the shackles of the tried and tested, and find ways to teach books we're really passionate about?

So, what would I teach, if I could?

1. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (KS3-5)

My all time favourite book, and with enough content and style to keep you busy for months, Wonderland is a perfect book for teaching.  The manipulation of language alone is going to help students grasp connotation and emotional impact, and the episodic structure of the story will aid with that tricky side of things too.  Characterisations are many and varied, and the humour will draw in even the most grumpy student.  I'd probably teach Looking Glass too, mainly because it contains 'Jabberwocky' and Humpty Dumpty, whose meeting with Alice could be analysed for years - 'There's glory for you!'  A whole term spent on this book in Year 8, perhaps, could be very useful indeed, paving a way for later understanding about language, structure and form.  And Year 8 can be adapted as we wish, so it's simply a case of buying the books (the biggest sticking point) and coming up with a detailed and relevant MTP.

2. The Devil's Dictionary (KS5)

Ambrose Bierce's fascinating and hilarious spoof dictionary would be great in any of the Englishes at KS5.  It has a really savage humour that could be a great focus for English Language, and its status as a work of literature can raise interesting questions regarding the nature of literature.  Bierce's biography is enthralling, too - especially his disappearance in 1913, where he set off to Mexico (at the age of 71) where he joined Pancho Villa.  He was never heard of again.  The potential for this to be used at KS5 is huge, thanks to the non-prescriptive nature of certain units on all English courses.  Perhaps as inspiration for coursework in Lit Lang, or as an example of language change in Language A2? This could easily find its place into a curriculum.  And by the way, if you haven't already, make sure you read it!

3. The Waves (KS5)

I've waxed over-lyrical about this before on here, but it's worth reiterating.  The Waves is an enormously important book.  The structure is very simple - a narrative separated into times of day by short descriptions of a beach at dawn, midday, dusk etc.  But the narrative held within this is very complex and abstract, charting the lives of several children as they pass through time, with traits, utterances and images carried through their whole life.  The self-awareness of the characters, and the fact they speak with the forced formality of a witness in the dock throughout the book, describing their lives, have stayed with me for years.  A-Level literature students would have a field day.

4. Lucky Jim (KS4)

Kingsley Amis' best book, in my opinion.  This would be a great text to read with a year 10-11 class.  The difficulty of the relationships and the sad heroism of Jim himself would appeal to a teenage audience.  In fact, Jim's open insolence and hatred of all forms of authority in his job as lecturer would strike a chord with most students! The fact that we can't help but root for the poor guy helps too.  The problem is, despite its quality and relevance, there is no easy way to fit it into a GCSE course.  It isn't a different culture text, and doesn't really fit into literary heritage either.  So its left out in the cold.  A shame.

5. A Confederacy of Dunces (KS4-5)

This is a tricky book, but the characterisation of the lead character is worth its weight in gold.
Ignatius J. Reilly is the modern teenager.  Any student who moans about the world, believing themselves to be better than all others, whilst gorging themselves on pringles playing Call of Duty, would see themselves reflected in this text, and that has to be a good thing.  Again, the contextual details surrounding John Kennedy Toole's suicide and subsequent posthumous publication would add fascinating flavour to it.  It's a different culture text, at least, but you'd have to be creative with the Controlled Assessments to squeeze it into a GCSE curriculum.

I'll have a think about more as the week progresses.  But there we go, a few books that I would love to teach.  Now I just have to figure out where, why and how.

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