Sunday Salon: Books and school

The Sunday Salon

I was going to do one of my “what I’ve been up to lately” posts today but then Michael Gove’s comments about the new GCSE curriculum were all over Twitter and I had to respond. I know that what Gove said (or is quoted as saying) does not accurately reflect the content of the new GCSE curriculum, it was just his own bizarre prejudices and ideas, but the man is the education secretary and sadly his words have consequence. So this is a riposte to him, not necessarily the curriculum.

I went to secondary school already loving books. Whether that was something innate in me or the influence of my parents and some or all of my primary school teachers I don’t know. But that’s why I survived five years of indifferent teaching of English lit and came out the other end as a lover of books. I would not be surprised if a lot of my former classmates don’t read as adults. We were not inspired to.

I should add for the record that my secondary school did have some great teachers – in history, maths and French I was very well served. And English language was handled well – I learned to debate, to write in different forms, especially creatively. But that cornerstone of education – reading books – was not handled in a way that inspired.

It can’t have all been about the choice of books. Because we did read some great books – Goodnight Mister Tom, Romeo and Juliet, Uncle Tom’s Cabin – but I can remember six books or plays that I studied in five years. That’s pretty poor. Is that the way the books were taught or the choice of books? I don’t know but I suspect it’s both.

Again, I was already a lover of books. My home was filled with books and I was encouraged to visit the library for more. My parents read and would recommend titles to me. I was given books and book vouchers for birthdays and Christmas. I was lucky. Many people don’t have that luck. For far too many children school represents all of their access to books, and that makes the books that are chosen to be taught – and the way they are taught – really really important.

At GCSE I studied A View from the Bridge, The Merchant of Venice, To Kill a Mockingbird, big cat poetry (including “Tyger, tyger, burning bright” and something about a caged animal in a zoo)…and that’s almost all I can tell you. There might have been a couple more novels, I’m not sure. I remember basically nothing about the first or last items on that list. We didn’t see A View from the Bridge or The Merchant of Venice performed, even on film. We did watch the film of To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact I remember the assignment was to compare and contrast book and film. Which was interesting and different but didn’t really touch on any of the key themes of that amazing book. I was convinced until I studied Shakespeare again at university that The Merchant of Venice was the dullest of all his plays.

Even at 15/16 it broke my heart that my English teacher was not inspiring me or my class, that I was not in love with each and every one of the books we studied. I know some people say that they learned to hate every book they studied at school but I maintain that’s not a natural outcome, it’s a result of the teacher and the choice of book. I would see friends in another English class with a different teacher filled with enthusiasm about their texts. I don’t know what limits were placed on the curriculum for my school in the 1990s and maybe my perception of that other class was wrong – perhaps all English teaching was constrained back then in just the way people fear it’s about to be again.

The thing I take from this is that teaching is hard and putting ill-thought-through reactionary limits on the books that can be taught to children at that crucial age is unhelpful. Declaring that all the books must be British is ridiculous – teenagers need to learn about the rest of the world too, if only to learn that it’s not all that different from the life we know, even when at first glance it’s completely different. And limiting the curriculum to pre-1900 is more than just ridiculous. When are we most sneering about boring old stuff? When do we most need to feel a connection to a world that is increasingly scary and full of big life-changing decisions? And yet when are we most receptive to big new ideas? This is when we should be exposed to science fiction, foreign fiction, the politics of gender, race and, well, politics in general.

So what saved my love of reading? I left that school and went elsewhere for my A-levels. It was a great decision because it led me to a great teacher. Linda picked a varied reading list for us but equally importantly she overflowed with enthusiasm for those books. (In fact, sometimes we mocked her a little for her exuberance but we loved her for it really.)

My A-level copy of Frankenstein. Click to enlarge if you want to read my notes!

Not only can I tell you what books I read for A-level but I still have my copies of all of them and I can remember what they were about and what they taught me. We went to see both plays we studied – Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and David Hare’s Murmuring Judges – performed on stage (Linda had made sure this would be possible before picking them for us), which showed me that sometimes humour needs to be spoken aloud to be funny. Penelope Lively’s memoir Oleander Jacaranda made me yearn to go to Egypt, even though I knew I would, like Lively, never know what it was to be Egyptian. (In fact, my first foreign holiday that I paid for and arranged by myself was indeed to Egypt.) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein filled my passionate heart with dramatic images of snowy mountains and Arctic tundra and also, in Shelley, gave me a heroine to admire. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart showed me a completely alien yet still relatable way of life and taught me to question colonialism and Christianity. But in some ways Henry James’s Washington Square was the real turnaround. I did not like that book, I found it tedious, but Linda still taught me to appreciate it. She used it to teach us about irony and sarcasm, and about the changing role of women in society.

I owe Linda so much. If I had continued with those teachers and book lists I’d had at secondary school I probably wouldn’t have studied English at university. I might not have continued to love reading at all (though I think – hope – that that’s unlikely). Reading is a huge and joyous part of my life still now, 17 years after I left that school, 15 years after Linda hugged me goodbye on A-level results day.

So I want to say thank you to the teachers who are putting their all into encouraging children to not only read, but to enjoy reading, to appreciate books. And to those teachers who aren’t inspired or inspiring? Please don’t give up or become complacent. Please keep trying. What you do is SO important. And definitely ignore that Mr Gove. He’s an idiot. But you knew that.

4 thoughts on “Sunday Salon: Books and school

  1. Kate Gardner May 25, 2014 at 4:44 pm

    My Mum, who works in a primary school, made the excellent point that a school reading list isn’t just about choosing the right books to expand horizons or teach certain lessons. It’s also really important that the list be as varied as possible because it is going to be read by a variety of children and you should be trying to appeal to all of them.

    She added that every time the government makes some change to curriculum or teaching methods against the will of teachers, even if gets reversed in five years’ time, for many thousands of children that time was their one chance at that point of education. This is an experiment on real people’s lives.

  2. Karen May 25, 2014 at 5:18 pm

    How a subject is taught made a huge difference to me also. Fortunately I changed English teachers just at the GSCE critical stage so found a love for Shakespeare (Merchant of Venice in fact) that I was able to carry through to A levels. But if I’d had the same teacher, then I’d never have had the opportunity to see what literature is really about.
    The new GCSE syllabus is taking us back to the same books that I had to do in school – thankfully no-one has yet suggested Sheridan be on the list.

  3. Laura@BunnyTales May 25, 2014 at 8:44 pm

    I actually JUST finished my first reading of Frankenstein and man o’ man would I love to get my hands on your noted up copy!!

    I always loved to read but I, too, had a teacher who was so gifted that he imparted not just appreciation but downright passion into the piece we got to study with him… so happy for me it was Fantasy & Sci-Fi!! Dune will always be a favorite now for me as will 1984 & Fahrenheit 451! I feel blessed to have had him cross my path.

  4. Vasilly May 25, 2014 at 8:47 pm

    I know what you mean. I remember having an English teacher in high school, who gave us a choice of books to read but didn’t seem to feel any emotion towards any of the book. This is someone who went to college and majored in English. I always wonder what happened to make him not feel for a subject he spent years studying.

    Your mom is so right. There needs to be variety in the books chosen for kids. We want kids to find “their” book, the one book that inspires and that a child loves so much. The changes government makes is the kind of experiment that fails each time.

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