It poisons the mind and corrupts the morals of many a promising youth; and prevents others from improving their minds in useful knowledge...”
Even in the 18th century, adults bemoaned the modish pursuits of young people – here, Reverend Enos Hitchcock cited “romances, plays and novels” as unwelcome distractions from academic pursuits. Today, the complaints are more about Xbox, Instagram and Snapchat.
Teachers can be the first to chastise students for being waylaid by seemingly irrelevant things. In reality, we should see them as potential opportunities.
Here are five things we may be tempted to dismiss but that could offer new opportunities to engage pupils in “the best which has been thought and said”, as Matthew Arnold put it.
1. Graphic novels
The phrase was coined as long ago as 1964, and yet I still regularly find well-read friends and colleagues unaware of the way the genre has grown and developed since. The 1984 publication of Art Spiegelman’s Maus was seminal. Based on his parents’ survival of Auschwitz, with Jews as mice and Germans as cats, it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.
Having read it in one sitting, I wanted to give every one of my pupils the same chance. As head of history at Colfe’s School in South London, I worked with the RE, art and English departments to buy a year-group set, issued to every pupil in Year 9 in preparation for their study of the Holocaust. The impact was even greater than I could have hoped. Self-declared “non-readers” wolfed the whole book as quickly as I had. One pupil’s parent told me her daughter’s friends had come round to see her but had been baffled when she failed to emerge from her bedroom. They eventually went in to find her glued to her copy – “go back downstairs, give me 10 minutes, I’ve nearly finished...”
Alison Bechdel, Alan Moore, Marjane Satrapi and many more have made beautiful and enriching works that deserve their place on school library shelves just as much as any traditional prose. In my experience, graphic novels can be a gateway back into reading for those pupils who dismissed it as not for them.
2. Social media
Teachers and parents are right to be concerned by the level of smartphone usage. But we can play a part in enriching content consumption by directing users towards Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts offering more than funny cat videos. Almost every institution and public figure has some social media representation – where once teachers may have told Oxbridge applicants to read The Economist, History Today and New Scientist, we can now complement this by encouraging them to follow these feeds.
What is it like to study at an Ivy League college? Yale University has placed hundreds of lectures online at oyc.yale.edu; watching my A-level history students use these for their independent investigation coursework was an education for me as much as them. In many ways, the experience of the lecture online is superior to that in the hall itself. The speaker can be paused and rewound as many time as is required for understanding. If a concept is baffling then the student can research it and then return to the lecture, ready to digest the material.
It has been incredibly gratifying to hear from former students how invaluable they found this when embarking on their degrees. Learning independent study skills while still having the support of a teacher in the room is one we should do our best to offer to every young person coming through our schools.
Similarly to graphic novels, podcasts and audiobooks have developed a dedicated and voracious audience. Yet many remain unaware of the wealth of material, often downloadable free of charge. For example, with American politics going through “interesting times”, it has been fascinating to listen to David Axelrod and Jon Favreau, both key players in Obama’s White House, offer analysis through their regular podcasts, The Axe Files and Pod Save America. BBC Radio 4’s Seriously...and QI’s No Such Thing as a Fish both offer an eclectic collection of windows onto the world.
Many teenagers appear to have their headphones permanently attached to their ears. Podcasts can be part of a daily routine at times where reading would be difficult – walking to school, on public transport, even while brushing their teeth or doing the washing up. And once again, interest piqued in this medium can lead on to wider reading.
Working on A-level history coursework, students would often go way outside my areas of expertise. Topics such as Justinian and Charlemagne required understanding of concepts specific to the period that were as new to me as they were to them.
A great aid in this proved to be the subject experts. Most had email addresses available online through their universities or publishers. Not all of them replied to student requests, but many generously gave their time to make helpful reading recommendations.
If there are safeguarding concerns, emails can be sent from the teacher’s account on a student’s behalf. I found it important to review my students’ emails before they were sent, in any case. Many were exactly as you would wish, but some initially failed to realise the need to be mindful that they were asking a favour from someone they did not know. One bluntly asked a leading historian to “explain the War of the Roses”, greeted with a similarly curt instruction to “buy my book”. Even there, a valuable lesson was learned.
So chuck the book? On the contrary. Each of these suggestions has standalone merit, but can also be a gateway to more traditional forms of high culture, including the “romances, plays and novels” that Reverend Hitchcock complained about back in 1790.
I am sure many other teachers have come to similar conclusions about how these forms of media can be used with pupils, and there are likely to be other methods of engaging pupils beyond these. I hope, if nothing else, it provides a reminder that the ICT revolution we have lived through offers previously unimaginable opportunities to pupils.
As teachers, we may sometimes feel that our efforts to encourage learning are not effective. But in my experience, the more diverse our methods, the better the results – in every sense.
Andrew Foster is head of education at Tougher Minds. He tweets @AFosterTeach