It seems like only yesterday the new GCSE English literature spec came in, but actually it’s four education secretaries ago.
It’s fair to say that, at the time, some of us panicked. Instead of reminding ourselves we’ve weathered curriculum and policy changes with fortitude over the last couple of decades, English departments up and down the land held hand-wringing meetings about challenging texts, even more challenging literary techniques (“It’s OK – Kirsty’s going to make a display explaining litotes, and we’ll put it up in the library...”) and closed texts.
Oh my God, the closed texts. “They’re going to have to LEARN QUOTATIONS…” we cried, as if most of our kids don’t have a corner of their brains dedicated to the faithful memorisation of say, the complete works of Stormzy, or every score of every Carlisle United match since 1904, or indeed, every unjust detention they’ve sat through when it wasn’t them, it was Kyle.
It’s not often I say this, but if anything exposed the soft bigotry in our souls, it was the very slightly raised expectation that students might have to remember something in detail.
All about the boobs
Three summers have passed, three sets of results, and we’ve all calmed down a bit. The grim dystopian image of children sitting in rows, regurgitating hacked-up shards of archaic texts has been replaced by the reality of lively talk about Lady Macbeth (“Honestly, Miss,” one of my Year 10 boys told me – correctly identifying Shakpeare’s semantic field of breast imagery – “she’s all about the boobs”) or whether or not Scrooge is supposed to be funny, and focused writing about what makes a piece of literature tick.
There’s an argument that lots of quotations aren’t necessary but, honestly, it’s useful to have a pocketful of precise references to rely on in an exam emergency. It certainly boosts confidence.
And, let’s face it, texts like Macbeth were written to be memorised. At the most basic level, writers use literary techniques to make their words stick in the reader’s head (and of course to make them read on), so learning by rote after a healthy analytical discussion can be a satisfying and purposeful task.
Earlier this year, I had a “what if..?” lightbulb moment. What if we learn poetry by heart in Year 7 – for fun – so that by the time our students reach Year 10, strategies for learning by heart are second nature?
With this in mind, I set my Year 7 the task of learning at least one verse from Walter Scott’s Young Lochinvar. I gave them the poem and had a carefully researched glossary and lots and lots of pictures.
Before I’d finished handing out the poetry sheets, one of my students called out “This is about Longtown!” And indeed it is. Longtown is a border town in our catchment area, awash with forgotten history. I explained that it was set in the time of the Border Reivers. I hadn’t planned to do this but I put up a list of Reiver surnames. How many Reiver names did we have among the class? About seven students. How many had a mother whose own name was a Reiver name? Or grandparents? Three quarters of the class put their hands up. So far so good.
I read it aloud. Then I recited it from memory. They followed with rulers and gleefully pointed out when I stumbled or made a mistake. We worked on vocabulary, rhythm (“It sounds like a horse galloping, Miss”) and the narrative.
Homework was to learn a verse of their choice and be ready to recite it the following week. Various strategies were offered and modelled.
The week was punctuated by children in the corridor reciting their verse. One student proudly announced that he’d learned TWO verses and refused to go into his IT lesson until he’d performed them for me.
Once we’d been through the grand finale of chanting out Young Lochinvar, I felt a little flat; the familiar panic of justifying a piece of work through writing kicked in. If they don’t write it down, have they really learned anything? I set a slightly half-arsed 200-word challenge to write a story based on ideas in Young Lochinvar. The class used the vocabulary glossary to, you know, enrich their writing and off they went.
Firing the imagination
And here’s the twist: in the class there is a little lad called – well, let’s call him Ben – who is one of those one-line-a-lesson kids: always affable but anarchically disorganised. While everyone else is diligently writing down the date and the title, Ben is rummaging through his bag. I’m hoping it’s a pen he’s looking for but, more usually, he unearths a water bottle, takes a long refreshing draught, puts it away carefully and looks vaguely round the classroom as if the very last thing he expects in an English lesson is to do some writing. I’m prepared for him. I silently hand him a pen and ruler and eventually, in his RE exercise book, he writes down the date and title and spends the rest of the lesson trying to catch up.
However, this task fires his imagination. He comes to the front of the classroom, purposefully sets up a work station right under my nose, demands a pencil (“I write better in pencil”) and begins to write. He works busily for half an hour, breaking off only to ask me what kind of woodland creature is the same size as a rabbit. I suggest hedgehogs. “Hedgehogs!” he breathes, and cracks on.
By the end of the lesson, he’s written a page. It’s a story about evil rabbits who attack in the woods. He’s not used any of Scott’s vocabulary but, by learning a verse off by heart, some of the cadences of the poem appear to have been absorbed into his DNA.
His story opened “It was a dark winter’s evening. All we could hear was the faint scutter of evil rabbits. We stopped our breaths, sped up. We were scared.” Already I can hear the echo of “She is won! We are gone, over bank, bush and scaur.”
Ben’s story continues; “We got back. This time we were prepared, one by one cantering through the swamps, past trees and over the riverbanks. We wait, but we hear nothing but the slow croak of frogs.”
Suddenly, before me, I see a tiny poet in complete control of his language. “The slow croak of frogs”? Seamus Heaney would have taken the day off if he’d come up with that line.
Then, like Scott, Ben shifts tense from past to present: “We feel threatened. We hear some scutters then a rustle in the leaves. We prepare.”
He ends the story: “We travel home. We have revenge.” Like Scott, Ben has written a self-contained narrative, concisely created atmosphere and denouement. I have no doubt he has been immediately influenced by his study of a technically brilliant poem.
It reminded me that we don’t learn poems or quotations just to impress a weary GCSE examiner. Our students are not just exam candidates; they will be parents, lovers, friends, speakers at their grandparents’ funerals, dreamers, creators. If something as simple as learning some poetry by heart can lighten our hearts and engage our minds, shouldn’t we be doing it more often?
Sarah Ledger has been teaching English for 30 years