I don’t blog that often on school-related things. I’m toying with the idea of setting up an English Teacher blog, but in all honesty, I have enough trouble keeping up with this one. But this weekend, something has happened which I feel too strongly about not to discuss.
The issue is that of American Literature being part of the GCSE English Literature syllabus. Michael Gove, apparently in line with his own personal tastes, has stipulated that students must be assessed on literature written in the British Isles. This is as part of his minimum ‘core’ that must be studied. I should clarify here that teachers can still teach American Literature, but they will not be examined.
I have been teaching English for nearly 10 years, in contexts which have repeatedly been described as challenging. I have taught The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird and, most often, Of Mice and Men. These novels are amazing. Themes of growing up, friendship, racism, innocence and dreams permeate them. These novels engage and capture the imagination of 15 and 16 year olds across the country. So why would Gove want to take them off the curriculum?
I believe he is trying to extend the depth and breadth of GCSE English Literature. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. Yes, many of our children do come through our education system without having read Austen, or Bronte, or even Dickens. Many more will never have heard of Orwell or Huxley. But is effectively banning Of Mice and Men the best way to improve standards? I don’t think so.
There is simply not time within the English Curriculum to study more than one novel. Once you start English Language and Literature at the beginning of Year 10 (or even in Year 9, as some schools do), there is no let up. Controlled Assessments follows Controlled Assessment. Speaking and Listening assessments still have to be done, despite not contributing to the grade. Dozens of poems have to be studied and understood for the exams, all with significant contextual factors. There is no let-up.
In addition, many of our students (in my experience) start Key Stage 4 without secure ability in the skills they need. No matter how much we teach our students to write analytical essays in KS3, they cannot do it to an adequate standard by the end of Year 9. Many of my students don’t really have a grasp of Standard English, and struggle with spelling and grammar.
I, and my colleagues, and teachers across the country, work exceptionally hard to engage and motivate students like these. Often targeting the elusive C grade, these students can easily become frustrated and disappointed with the results that they achieve. Having engaging, and, to an extent, accessible texts like Of Mice and Men is such an important part of their course. So many times, I have heard students (who would never read a book independently), discussing their love of George and Lennie. Disaffected lads will say to others, “No, don’t tell me how it ends, we’re reading it later.” There will always by at least one student who cries. The themes of friendship, loneliness and dreams are powerful ones to a teenager. They are relevant to every teenager, irrespective of their academic ability.
I taught ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ in a very culturally-mixed class. Atticus was our hero. For many of the students, he was an example of a good father-figure. Surely we need these heroes in our classrooms and our imaginations?
Surely, every English teacher in the nation is, to an extent, angry about Gove’s decision. Our curriculum is being based on his personal tastes. Our students’ grades, and their futures, are being based on his personal tastes. When, and how, can we say, enough is enough: this is in bad taste?
I’d like to link to Geoff Barton’s excellent blog post on this; he is much more eloquent than I.