Sunday, 7 June 2020

Putting stories back in the curriculum

It is Sunday, so it is hymn number 423:

All things bright and beautiful,

All characters great and small,

All things wise and wonderful,

The writer made them all.

Each little voice that speaks,

Each little person's fling,

The writer made their glowing colours,

The writer made their tiny wings.  

Books. I love them. The short books. The long books. The lost and forgotten books. The cherished books. The unpopular books. The easy books. The complicated books. I love them all.

Annually, there is always a discussion about books in the GCSE English curriculum. Rightly so, we should question and interrogate the choices made. Yet, the discussion on the GCSE texts becomes a hurricane for the whole English curriculum. It pulls in Years 7, 8 and 9 in its path. Everything is forgotten for the sake of the GCSE texts. I know I teach a Shakespeare play, a Dickens novel, a play written by a modern writer and a selection of poems for GCSE, but I also teach other books for the English curriculum. Ideally, those GCSE texts are studied in one specific year. One year. The course might last two, but the time spent on individual books is shorter.

We need a good hard look at how reading is used in the classroom, because I think we are in danger of making the same mistakes as before and just transposing a model from previous exam systems on to the current one.

We are in danger of having book dysmorphia.

We need to re-evaluate how books and stories are used in the classroom, because I think we have become warped into thinking that every book we read in English should be studied and analysed in the way we do books at GCSE. In fact, I’d say that the model for studying books, in English, is the GCSE model. Spend a term on it. Read a bit. Do a bit of work. Repeat again and again. Then an assessment at the end to ensure that the student has a good knowledge of the text.

If we follow the GCSE model of studying books like that (I am still traumatised when I taught ‘Holes’ – that book takes a year to read), then no wonder we don’t read many books in KS3. You are simply blocking off two terms to read one book. We are eking out the interest for weeks at a time. When you look at other things in the curriculum to cover, you can see why people don’t teach several novels in a year.  This is the problem. We need students to read more, yet our curriculum works against this. Instead, we rely on private reading or tutor times to plug the gaps, when we could be looking at our own curriculum to aid this need for more reading and more stories in lessons.

I feel there are two types of book in the English classroom. Don’t think for a second that I being elitist and snobbish about the two types. I view each type of books as equally good and each with their own literary merit. And, yes, you could study them both using the GCSE model. However, I think some books lean closer to analyse and some books lean closer to reading for pleasure / exploration of ideas / issues.

Type 1 – Texts to analyse

Year 7:  ‘A Treasure Island’

Your Type 1 books are meaty, weighty and call for the level of analysis you’d do with GCSE texts. Enjoyment stems from the story and engagement with the language of the text.

Type 2 – Texts to experience as stories  

Year 7: ‘A Monster Calls’

Your Type 2 books are powerful, poignant and need to be read and enjoyed. They don’t need to be stopped and started all the time. Enjoyment stems from the story and engagement with the ideas of the story. They might have an issue or complex emotional conflict.

The predominance of Type 1 books and the associated methodology with them means that the speed, pace and consumption of books is lost. We don’t race through books. We stumble. We limp. No wonder reading has a bad press in teenagers, because if they view reading in the same light as we study books over a term, then I too would be questioning my enjoyment of books. What, before I read this chapter, I have to match up the meanings of words? Books can be just read. Books can be just discussed. Books can be just enjoyed.

Again, our treatment of books follows the GCSE model. We must at some point write on paper something about how language or structure has been used in the novel or we haven’t taught them something. What if the reading of a book and the teaching from it isn’t something you can easily assess? What if it is the culmination of reading several books over several years?

This year, I tried to change the way I used novels in lessons. I looked at how I could change the way we used novels in the classroom. So, I put more texts in. When studying Gothic horror, we read a Real Read version of ‘Dracula’ and discussed the story. Then, we’d carry on with our writing of our Gothic story. No analysis.

Also, at the start or end of the lesson, I’d read a chapter from a book. That book went on for a term or more, but engaged them. They were hooked, and, surprisingly settled at the start or end of a lesson.  They listened. And, they listened. When, I asked them about the story, they could offer ideas and predictions. They were engaged in the story. Oh, and I only needed one copy of the text because I was reading out aloud.

For next year, we are reading with each KS3 class we are aren’t changing our Type 1 texts, but we are adding five Type 2 books. We are adding more story to lessons. Our plan for Year 7 is to read the following:

Ghost Boy – Jewell Parker Rhodes

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit – Judith Kerr

Trash – Andy Mulligan

Jessica’s Ghost – Andrew Norriss

We’ll be reading them a bit each lesson. The teacher reading…and the students listening. A collective reading experience. We are putting the story back in lessons. Yes, there might be something interesting about the language or the structure, but the students will hear a story and engage with the story and listen. We are now looking at our Year 8 and Year 9 texts. Why not try to teach students four more books in a year? Do I want the experience students have of a year to be dominated by one book? Plus, if the student’s only experience of reading takes place in the English classroom, then lets give them loads of reading experience. After all, that’s mainly what distinguishes the able and not so able: reading experience. Why don’t we just make the reading experience better for students?

I love stories. Part of the reason I read so much is that I love reading stories and experiencing stories so much. That’s why I read everything and anything. The more exposure to stories, the more chances we have to ignite the spark. Yep, the GCSEs are the goal post, but you can some great passes and tackles before you score the goal.

Reading is the best thing in English lessons. We need to tell each other that is fine to just read the book. It is fine to not have something written in your book after reading. It is fine listen to a story and not be interrogated about the writer’s techniques. It is fine to just read. It is fine. Just read.

Thanks for reading,


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