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Dive In – Why Deep Exploration Is Crucial When Teaching English Literature

  • Dive In – Why Deep Exploration Is Crucial When Teaching English Literature

GSCE English literature may have changed, says Jon Seal – but discussion, debate and creativity should still be at the heart of how we teach it…

It’s tempting to feel that the stars are not wanted now; that we should pack up the moon and dismantle the sun, pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood. We need to prepare for the exam, and must thrash through the weighty tomes of the literary worthies.

This year, English teachers are navigating around another series of changes as GCSE English Literature shifts into yet another form. Coursework has disappeared completely, and now all students will be seated in hot summer sports halls for the unfortunately named ‘terminal exam’, with nothing but what’s in their heads for comfort.

Literary irritants

When I heard about the plans for GCSE English literature, I was haunted by an image. Rows of ink-splattered desks; me, a confused schoolboy, stabbing holes in a dog-eared copy of Great Expectations; Lloyd Bailey waving a rubber monster’s hand every time the teacher turned to the blackboard. It was hard not to look back in frustration.

And yet…

Sometimes when grappling with such literary heavyweights as Dickens, Priestley and Shakespeare, it’s easy to see them as grand old men of literature who have a wealth of intellect and tradition behind them, and which must be respected. It’s easy to forget that in their day, they were often smashing down the walls of respected literary traditions.

Dickens published serials in his own magazine, shining a light into the unrespectable corners of Victorian society. Shakespeare was a jobbing playwright who carved out plays which asked dangerous questions about politics and power. Mary Shelley was a teenager who rebelled against just about everyone and everything. They might be part of the great traditional canon now, but in their day they were irritants, sniping at the establishment and all around them.

Maybe we should take our lead from them. After all, the exam boards are keen to encourage the active and creative. They highlight the importance of approaching these texts through discussion, collaboration and exploration –approaches that have been successfully developed in English classrooms over the last 30 years. Maybe now is an opportunity to take a fresh and innovative approach to the literary worthies:

Be honest – it’s difficult!
I sometimes feel a little bit flummoxed when reading Dickens. Who doesn’t? I have read, seen and taught Macbeth many times – but do I understand it all? How often have I been floored by a tricky question about Elizabethan language from a sharp Y10? If we find it difficult, it’s surely okay for a 15-year-old to get annoyed and confused. They shouldn’t be beating themselves up because they ‘don’t get it’.

Summarise first
Rather than thinking of that novel as a 300-page journey in the fog from beginning to end, it can be helpful to think of the work as a sculpture. Stand back and have a look at the whole, before moving in to explore the detail. Start with a simple summary of the story, or assign a section to a group of students and ask them to summarise it for a presentation to the class.

Use technology
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Shakespeare wrote for the stage and not the page. Don’t feel afraid or guilty about accessing the wealth of adaptations and clips that are out there. Rather than watching the whole DVD, break the play down into a selection of highlights, or use trailers that give you summaries and key quotes.

Discuss and debate
Literature enables us to explore the ‘Big Questions’. Questions are the base material of our subject, to which we each bring our own interpretations and ideas. Together, we argue and inch towards some kind of understanding, as the social and cultural landscape wobbles beneath us. If literature is working, it should make us think about real people in the here and now. Dickens, Shakespeare and Shelley deal with modern themes that are relevant, controversial and edgy.

Get off the page
We can explore the actions and motivations of characters through hot seat and character interviews. We can stop the action, interview the characters and explore their inner feelings. Of course, our ideas need to be probed with academic rigour and justified with strong evidence, but in our pragmatism to prepare for the exam we should not pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.

Discussion and debate, issues and politics, creativity and enthusiasm – these are the life-blood of English literature and must remain centre stage.

Jon Seal has been a teacher for over 27 years; he has written teacher guides, scripted DVD material, and three Cambridge University Press student books for the new AQA GCSE in English Literature

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