A stranger in our midst

11th February 2000 at 00:00
As citizenship education comes up for any takers, English teachers have a chance to reinvigorate their subject, says John Moss.

In December 1997, an American Internet site dedicated to civil rights and freedom of speech (www.freedomforum.org) published a document headed: "Of Mice and Men under fire in Florida". It reported a campaign by parents and anti-racist activists to ban Steinbeck's novel from schools "because it contains racist language". In response, a civil rights attorney argued that a ban "would violate students' First Amendment Rights". Year 10 pupils who discussed this report after reading the novel covered important parts of the new citizenship education programme of study. They learned about "the legal and human rights and responsibilities underpinning society and how they relate to citizens" and "the importance of ... the media's role ... including the Internet, in providing information and affecting opinion". In particular, by thinking about the impact of Steinbeck's novel, the anti-racism campaign and the Internet forum, pupils addressed the citizenship education key stage 4 attainment target, to "evaluate the effectiveness of different ways of bringing about change at different levels of society".

The exercise stimulated thinking about the contribution of texts to social change, which suggests how a citizenship education dimension to English can extend critical literacy. Classroom evidence of this kind demonstrates that the introduction of citizenship education into the national curriculum offers teachers an exciting chance to engineer a radical revision of the English curriculum. The decisions to make citizenship education compulsory from 2002, and to allow schools to choose where to locate it in the curriculum, have created new windows of opportunity. Some English teachers may be suspicious of citizenship education because the concept of citizenship is susceptible to appropriation from any position in the political spectrum. However, by proactively adopting parts of the programmes of study for citizenship education and curriculum time allocated to it, secondary English has the chance to:

* give more time to oracy and acknowledge its primary significance in human negotiations, personal and political;

* promote reding strategies which examine the representation of class, race, gender and sexuality;

* develop new reading strategies that take account of the legal and civil rights contexts which have a bearing on the meanings that can be derived from texts;

* define a new canon of literary and non-literary texts from different cultures, using criteria which take into account the social purposes and influences of texts;

* prioritise the media and information and communications technology literacies which are essential to democratic participation;

* embrace drama fully, since its educational processes and texts are especially powerful vehicles for exploring the social dimensions of human experience;

* focus English language teaching on language and power, how forms of English from different parts of the world relate to each other, and the globalisation of English;

* reinvigorate the concept of speaking and writing purposefully for different audiences with a new focus on the potential or actual impact of texts pupils produce, and their capacity to sustain, challenge or transform social situations;

* develop cross-curricular links with geography, history, science, RE and PSHE;

* invoke a set of questions related to citizenship issues which could be asked of all the texts pupils produce or study:

* who do the producers and receivers of this text, consciously or unconsciously, seek to include or exclude, attribute rights or responsibilities to, and render more or less powerful?

* what social situations do producers and receivers of this text seek to sustain, challenge or transform, to praise, criticise, or to re-envision?

* how do conditions in society, past, present and future, locally, nationally and globally affect the capacity of this text to achieve what its producer sought for it?

Citizenship education is intended to "enhance democratic life for us all" says Bernard Crick and English must play its part. We must equip students to use language and texts to appreciate, comply with and maintain some aspects of culture and society, but also to critique, challenge and change others.

John Moss is head of secondary education at Canterbury Christ Church University College and NATE research officer.

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