To write a curriculum is to make a political statement. Let me show you how through English.
English is a language with a complex and challenging history; it has provided a rich wealth of beautiful and profound literature for the world, but it also represents a dominating force that has maligned and squeezed out many voices from other cultures, even in their own countries.
I don’t seek to unpick the mess of empire, but we do need to think about the choice of "what" we teach in English within that context. And react accordingly.
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Who do we give a voice to when we choose literature texts, who do we miss, and what impact might those choices make?
Building a curriculum for all
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke in 2009 about what happens when one form of literature dominates, and there is only one version of the world: “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanise. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
When we talk about the "best that has been thought and said" in terms of curriculum, we would do well to remember that this is highly subjective and is by no means "agreed", though some will have you believe it is.
Buying into the "agreed" canon is simply to maintain a silencing of minority voices.
We have a challenge on our hands, but we can overcome it if we are brave and creative in our curriculum planning.
For English, such consideration would look like this:
DO: keep teaching the giants of the canon – Shakespeare, Dickens et al are brilliant and deserving of their places. I would advocate teaching a Shakespeare play every year with key stage 3, but it doesn’t necessarily need to focus on analysis and essay writing. You could teach Julius Caesar as part of a persuasive writing topic, looking at the rhetoric in the speeches.
DO: also teach a range of diverse writers: women, non-British writers, writers who are alive and writing now. Consider the fact that literature is an evolving art, and new things are being written all the time. If you need some help in finding these writers, you can try some of these organisations, many of which have free resources to support teachers: Inpress Books, Peepal Tree Press, Poetry School, Poetry Foundation, Moving Poems, Spoken Word Archive, Modern Poetry in Translation and Button Poetry.
DO: talk about the backgrounds of non-canonical writers, but without making a big issue of it – if we talk about how they are "something different" then that defeats our purpose.
DO: teach a full three-year KS3, without starting GCSE texts in Year 9. It may feel scary to get through everything in two years, but if you have a rigorous and robust KS3 curriculum, you can prepare all the same skills while still engendering a love of the subject.
DO: take any opportunity you can during Years 10-11 to bring in alternative voices. You can do this through the practice extracts you choose for Language papers, and the poetry you select for unseen practice.
DO: teach the power of literature in the modern age; media, bias, fake news, opinion, argument, debate. Empower students to use and understand language that is designed to persuade and manipulate.
DO: what matters most. We teach literature so that our students can see beyond their own experiences and hear voices from outside their own echo chambers. This makes them better people. This is what will help us to create a kinder, more empathetic world. If you have the choice between doing it for some distant examiner, or doing it for the young people in front of you, do what matters most, every time.
The above advice is not just applicable for English. Every subject will make choices and those choices are political. Admit it, reflect upon it, react to it, and we can ensure a curriculum is empowering for all, not some.