A slimline tonic for the self-reliant
Dennis Hamley reviews 'a big player' which still gives teachers room to use their initiative.
Here is another big player in the battle for the hearts, minds and pursestrings of English departments. Written by three well-known English practitioners (Sue Hackman and Patrick Scott are advisers, Alan Howe's work on oracy in Wiltshire is much valued), this new course is slimmer than some of its rivals and for good reason. There are no teacher's notes, except in the body of the text, no record sheets or checklists (the authors make the entirely reasonable point that departments will have these already), and no attempt to cover every programme of study. No teacher will feel his or her initiative has been taken away.
Each book contains six half-termly units which are organised incrementally, with basic skills dealt with in the context of each unit and recursively. The units are designed for mixed-ability classes, but there is plenty of differentiation; support for the less able and challenge for the more able are offered tactfully but positively.
The six units in Book 1 provide a typically varied mix. First comes "Storytelling", both oral and written. There are two complete stories - "A Story Short" from Jim Henson's The Storyteller by Anthony Minghella and the Norwegian folktale "The Squire's Bride" - followed by work on beginnings and endings, description, action, extracts from Gawain, Anansi and others, and testimony from storytellers like Hugh Lupton, Harold Rosen and Mary Medlicott. All this leads to drafting written and told stories. Notice that in this course, the business of starting off by writing "who am I?" pieces is left to the teacher to decide. In this rich brew come reading, writing, oral work, pre-20th century literature, scope for whole class, group and individual work and built-in assessment.
Subsequent units - "The mystery of the disappearing children", "Quests and journeys", The Wind Eye, (a close look at Robert Westall's novel) and "Introducing Shakespeare" - follow similar patterns. In the first is Browning's Pied Piper, a close look at the legend from which it springs and theories about what might have happened. In the second unit, Mary Coleridge and Tennyson appear with Danny Abse and James Berry: the unit again leads to performance and bringing the words to life. "Quests and Journeys" leads to students writing their own quest stories from an excellent graphic novel beginning, using game book techniques and prediction. This leads neatly to a heady mix of science fiction and medievalism in The Wind Eye.
The final unit on Shakespeare seems almost an afterthought. It wisely starts with the Globe Theatre and short extracts to show what sort of dramatist Shakespeare was.
A lot is packed into these compact confines and the pattern continues in Books 2 and 3. In Book 2, Short Stories (John Wain' s superb "A Message from the Pig-man" and Hardy's "The Withered Arm"), a close look at how language changes, diary work, another wide range of poetry, an excellent publishing simulation, work on Don Taylor's play The Roses of Eyam.
In Book 3, Anne Fine's novel The Flour Babies is succeeded by horror in literature and consideration of the Gothic. Algernon Blackwood's story "The Kit Bag" represents pre-20th century literature here. A study of Romeo and Juliet, biography, work on writing registers and Writing Wrongs, a study of injustice in different societies over many years, rounds off this three-year course.
Altogether, this is a publication to be considered very carefully. While the latest English curriculum requirements are fully satisfied, the teaching principles which they sometimes deny are never sacrificed. The materials and approaches are wide-ranging, embodying methods which represent deep contemplation of the best practice and experience.
Hodder English will not do all your work for you: closer in scope to Longman's Reflections, than the Oxford and Heinemann English courses, it represents very good value indeed.
Dennis Hamley is a children's author and former English adviser for Hertfordshire