Book review: How to Teach English

Chris Curtis says all teachers fall short of perfection – but his book might get you closer to it, says Stephanie Keenan

Book review: How to Teach English, by Chris Curtis

How To Teach English: Novels, non-fiction and their artful navigation

Author: Chris Curtis
Publisher: Independent Thinking Press
Details: 256pp; £16.99
ISBN: 978-1781353127

Chris Curtis is already known to many as an English teacher, head of department and author of the long-standing blog Learning from My Mistakes.

Fans of the ideas and resources published freely on his blog, such as his 200-word writing challenges, will no doubt be keen to read How to Teach English, published as part of Phil Beadle’s How to Teach series. 

Refreshingly, at a time when discussions around teaching can often become polarised ideologically and politically, Curtis’ ideas are pitched as usable in the classroom “without having to buy into some grand ideology”. 

Seasoned teachers may wryly recognise Curtis’ image of the “highly paid consultant [writing] from a gold chair perched on the lifeless bodies of former colleagues”, and appreciate the practicality of a book written by a practising teacher who is “going back into the classroom tomorrow”. 

Just a bloke in front of a class

The only danger of the “I’m just a bloke standing in front of a class” approach is not achieving the balance of humility and authority required: the proof needs to be in the content. 

Luckily, Curtis has a relatable, personable and avuncular writing style, which avoids the pitfalls of humblebrag. He admits his mistakes, recognises that we are all works in progress, relishes the challenges of never reaching teaching perfection and clearly enjoys the process: “The joy of teaching is that it is never finished.” 

The book is intended to be a quick and easy pick-up-and-play guide, a tried-and-tested “collection of practical approaches you can use in your classroom”, to be dipped in and out of as needed. 

The book is broken down into “How to…” sections, including poetry, writing, novels, essay-writing, non-fiction, Shakespeare, analysing texts, accuracy and grammar. So you can either read it as a whole or choose an area you want to focus on or revisit. It’s one of those books that will acquire lots of little Post-Its on the pages you like while you’re reading it. 

Tips for teaching English

If books were people, this one would be the trusted, kindly mentor you turn to for guidance and ideas when planning or reviewing a scheme of learning and needing a nudge in the right direction.

A common thread running throughout the book is the need to start with feelings and emotions: “Students need to understand that a poem is an emotional journey.” 

Curtis focuses throughout on engaging with the text first, making that personal, emotional or intellectual connection and finding true relevance (not in a down-with-the-kids, linking-it-to-Stormzy way), before launching into technical aspects or close analysis. 

Curtis unpicks how to scaffold the emotional approach to a poem with students. If a poem is “a feeling, bottled”, it is the teacher’s role to help with the unbottling, for which Curtis offers explicit strategies. 

In an education landscape at times dominated by the sometimes unforgiving rhetoric around mastery, knowledge and the technical, it is a useful reminder of the essential purpose of literature. For me, the evident enjoyment Curtis takes in employing creative yet purposeful approaches, and his acceptance of different approaches to texts, was a timely reminder not to throw out the baby with the bathwater when using knowledge-based approaches. 

One issue with some of Curtis’ advice could be that some experienced teachers will think “I do that already” or “what’s so special about that?” 

I’ve been teaching for eight years now, and found that I appreciated the reassurance of recognition in some of the chapters. I nodded along, thinking: “Yes, I do that, too,” while also finding plenty of new ideas and approaches. 

Reading for pleasure

You may disagree with some of the ideas and content – and I’m sure Curtis would be fine with that. For example, I would not always want to tell students the plot before reading a text, as I want them to enjoy the process of reading it for the first time themselves. (Everybody hates the person who writes “George kills Lennie” in the front of Of Mice and Men.)

Ultimately, Curtis’ aim is for English teachers to change or improve one thing in the classroom as a result of this book. From this, I infer that he would not expect us to adopt his methods wholesale, in a Life of Brian-style act of worship. Rather, we should use our own experience to discern and select which ideas and approaches we can most purposefully incorporate into our own practice. 

Stephanie Keenan is head of English at Ruislip High School. She blogs here and tweets @HeadofEnglish


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