'GCSE English needs to take students out of their comfort zone'

English lessons can cover hard topics with more subtlety and impact than PSHE, writes subject leader Andrew Otty

Andrew Otty

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“It’s either death or Ofsted,” I joked, walking into the hastily-convened staff meeting. It was unthinking and the shame of it will always haunt me. As I came to understand the full horror of the situation, I forgot how to breathe. One of my students had committed suicide overnight.

Statistically, it’s likely to be something that many of us working in education experience eventually, as hundreds of young people continue to take their own lives each year. In my first year of teaching, I simply wasn’t prepared for it and it floored me. So when I decided to use Jay Asher’s novel Thirteen Reasons Why in some of my GCSE English resit lessons this term, I didn’t do so lightly. I was well aware that its Netflix adaptation had been accused of glamorising suicide. I was also well aware that most of my students had already seen it.

Nevertheless, I was extremely nervous about how it would be received in class. I built the initial lessons around learning behaviours, creating a supportive atmosphere, and signposting where help could be sought if anyone found the material too much or too close to home. I found my groups bonding far more strongly than I’d expected. Through exposure to an uncomfortable text, they were immediately more invested and bound together by the shared experience of it.

“Go to the red cone for ‘panic’, the green cone for ‘stretch’, the yellow for ‘comfort’,” I explained, herding the students on to a line bisecting the classroom. “You will now have to talk about your feelings."

I was knocked aside in the stampede to "panic".

“OK, what about talking about the feelings of a made-up character in a story?”

There was a slow shuffle back towards "stretch".

There lies the power of English: the opportunity for vicarious experience, to stand in someone else’s shoes as Atticus Finch would say, or to explore our own thoughts, ideas, and feelings through a safe proxy.

'Sophisticated engagement'

Those early lessons elicited some of the most thoughtful and supportive peer feedback I’ve ever seen. After reading an extract where Hannah Baker, the protagonist, posthumously describes how she felt in class when she alone received no supportive notes from her peers, every student knew the importance of the comments they made and the effect they would have.

Rather than the nightmare visions of emotional carnage I had conjured through self-doubt, I instead found myself humbled by the sophisticated level of the students’ engagement with the subject matter. Appallingly, few had received any explicit personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) or tutorials on this subject at school, yet they had a mature understanding; they knew that often those affected by suicidal thoughts were not the stereotypical "emo" image and that, in fact, it is hard to know what anyone is really feeling. They knew how important it is to establish that there is always hope. Rather than learning this in whatever form of PSHE their school provided, they had learned it from watching TV shows like Thirteen Reasons. PSHE is commonly awkward and forced – for staff, too – but English can cover these topics with more subtlety and impact, and should be doing so. Only a tiny number of those who had watched the series had talked about it with an adult.

I was also taken by surprise by the critical skills of this first resit cohort to come through the 9-1 GCSEs. In a lesson where they evaluated how successfully the melancholic Lord Huron song used in the series fitted with the themes of the novel, I did not have to spend any time at all explaining what was meant by "themes". They were instantly reeling off thematic links: "regret", “loss”, “loneliness”. Their ability to evaluate and compare, as required by the new English language GCSE, is also on a steep skyward trajectory. Placing Thirteen Reasons alongside John Green’s similarly-themed Looking for Alaska, these resit students were rapidly able to identify the close juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy in Green’s writing that made it, in their opinion, superior. The opening of More Than This by Patrick Ness, a passage that never fails to provoke jaw-dropping rapture, was also more effective in their eyes because of its precise and brutal use of language and structure.

They could quickly see that the dangerous glamour and sense of revenge in the Netflix show, where Hannah, represented by a young actress, is "present" as events unfold in her aftermath, are not true of the novel. They found that her voice in the narrative instead created greater empathy and understanding of her experience. Whether GCSE reforms have produced a startlingly-well-equipped cohort of resit students this year, or whether the visceral quality of this young adult writing brought the very best out of them, I don’t know.

'Take learners to the edge'

I do know that the debate over the cultural value of the books we teach is a distraction. Those abandoning classics are guilty of pulling up a drawbridge on their students. Those rejecting YA fiction are dismissing an incredible tool to get young people reading in the first place. But this raises a difficult question for me: I’ve never felt anxious about bringing Romeo and Juliet into my classroom, or Ophelia, or Willy Loman. So why was Hannah Baker making me sweat?

I really, really hope that it’s not because on some subconscious level I’ve never expected my students to be able to relate to those characters as much as they do to those in Thirteen Reasons. If that’s the case, I should quit right now. Even if I’m not as skilled a storyteller as Asher, and if I don’t have a soundtrack and a troupe of talented young actors to bring what I’m teaching to life, I have to believe that I can meaningfully connect students to texts. Is my worry, in truth, because I so vividly remember that staff meeting 10 years ago? The stakes are very high… In an era of unprecedented attention to mental health, it’s no coincidence that the least-talked-about area is the one that actually kills children.

Teen suicide prevention charity Papyrus say that “talking about self-destructive feelings and suicide does not make it more likely to happen. In fact, it can and often does reduce the risk.” I think that’s probably also true of violence, racism, sexism, bullying and everything else we’d like to challenge. We English teachers are uniquely privileged in being able to do that with the finest resources ever written.

Just this week, an Alabama school district has banned the teaching of To Kill a Mockingbird because it made students "uncomfortable". If anything, that should be the measure of the books we teach. We need to push our learners out of their comfort zone. We want them right on the edge, because that’s where they’ll learn most and where they will grow as human beings. The trick is to do so with your hand hovering above their shoulder to catch them if they start to fall. It’s risky, but less so than letting one find their way to the edge alone.

Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in a South-West college. He tweets @Education720

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Andrew Otty

Andrew Otty

Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in a college in the South West

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