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All Students Have a Right to a Rich Diet of English Language and Literature

Debating curriculum, not pedagogy, will keep passion at the heart of your English department, insists Claire Stoneman...

  • All Students Have a Right to a Rich Diet of English Language and Literature

When I first started teaching, back in 2000, I was fortunate to be in an English department that debated the ‘what’ of curriculum far more than the ‘how’ of pedagogy.

My head of department was keen for us to bring our specialisms to department meetings, and I remember taking my colleagues through my interest in narrative in The Turn of the Screw.

I recall listening to my second in department’s love of Australian writing, and another colleague’s rich analysis of Owen’s poetry. We were more than plenaries and objectives and sentence starters and seating plans; we were a living, breathing English department.

Over the years, the glitter and tinsel of the frippery of some recommended pedagogy has seductively chipped away at the substance of a quality English curriculum. Some pedagogy was seen as a magic bullet; as ‘engaging’; even as promoting good behaviour.

Elsewhere, it was assumed to be a proxy for progress. Specificity was replaced with a tsunami of genericism. Those of us desperate to retain the distinctiveness of our subjects watched helplessly as they floundered in the genericism wave. 

But times they are a-changing. The welcome concreteness of the noun ‘curriculum’ is being talked about more than ever before in schools up and down the land. Finally, we’re returning to the ‘what’.

These discussions are new in many schools. What I’d like to consider here, as an English teacher and as a senior leader, are those conversations about curriculum development as a subject community within English departments.

This is a delight. I’d like all colleagues to be able to prise off the shackles of pedagogy and to return to their ‘subject joy’ – to that subject tabernacle of real awe; the most sacred part of what we love that we studied at university.

For middle and senior leader colleagues, this could initially prove to be a challenge unless we see the curriculum as important.

Because within the delicious specificity of our subjects, the ‘how’ should be dictated by the ‘what’: the curriculum.

And debate in our subject communities is healthy and necessary to keep our subject living and breathing, not a dry objective-riddled corpse of a subject, rattling and bemoaning its fate in its progress-checked tomb.

I don’t think there is a blueprint to this debate, but I do think that as English specialists we ought to try. So, debate over whether our pupils read extracts or a whole novel is important.

Debate over whether Y7 read Holes or Frankenstein is important.

Debate over whether we teach Middle English, and what texts in Middle English we teach, is important.

Debate over what we want our pupils to know and understand to reveal the truth and integrity of our subject is hugely important.

These are massive – and beautiful – considerations, and perhaps ones we have never thought about before.
 
With this in mind, here are some initial questions I’d encourage heads of English to think about:

  • What conversations does your department have about English language and literature?
  • Do colleagues share and debate subject interests and arguments?
  • Do colleagues write? Do they contribute to subject communities outside school?
  • Do you prioritise this sharing and debate in department meetings?
  • How does your department talk about your curriculum?
  • Do they know and have input into what is taught and why?
  • Does your department know why your English curriculum is sequenced and constructed in the way it has been?

Our subject is amazing. And I believe our pupils have a right to know all that is awe-inspiring about it, irrespective of background and circumstance.

For young people to be able to access, dine and feast at the table of English language and literature knowledge is vital; without it, they are starved of what is rich.


Claire Stoneman is an English teacher and a deputy of academy. She is the founder of researchED Birmingham and is a member of the steering group of the Midlands Knowledge Schools Hub.

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