Curriculum - As they like it

13th November 2009 at 00:00
How do you make English set texts more accessible to pupils without dumbing down? Friederike Heine reports

For many English teachers - especially those charged with teaching less enthusiastic and lower-ability pupils - the task of ensuring exam success as well as an appreciation of set texts can seem insurmountable. Locating stories in them that will appeal to pupils and taking into account the linguistic challenges they often present is difficult even for the most experienced of teachers.

An English teacher posting on a forum on The TES website recently lamented the fact that he could not get his bottom-set GCSE pupils interested in the works of Shakespeare. "I am trying to do coursework, and I really feel as if I am failing," he wrote. "The behaviour of the pupils is poor - they are verbally abusive, refuse to do work and are not engaged with the text at all."

Another teacher replied: "The sort of reactions you might get to Shakespeare's work other than expletives and sulks will be of the "Boring", "What do I need this for?", "What's this got to do with anything?" sort, I imagine. Dig out all the smut and use the extracts as a starting point in unravelling his language and depicting life in his times."

So much sex is readily apparent in Shakespeare that it might seem surprising that anyone should look for more - virtually every play is shot through with sexual puns. In Romeo and Juliet, the lovers' romance is contrasted with the earthiness of the nurse and the salaciousness of Mercutio, and the fantasy of Love's Labour's Lost incorporates passages so indelicate that they would raise a blush on the cheek of even the most nonchalant of GCSE pupils.

But despite the fact that uncovering Shakespearean double entendres has occupied literature enthusiasts for hundreds of years, do these explorations have a place in the classroom? And what lengths are teachers willing to go to in order to engage their pupils?

It's not just Shakespeare. Many set English texts will seem a world away from the lives of teenagers today, so how can teachers locate stories in them that their classes can relate to? "Some texts might indeed seem or be a world away, but that might be one of their more attractive qualities," says Ian McNeilly, director of the National Association for the Teaching of English (Nate).

"However, I can't bring any text to mind that does not have some links with modern-day life. One of the reasons many set texts endure is because although they might be set in any given historical period they deal with eternal issues that come under the general title "What it is to be a human being". Love, hate, friendship, betrayal, mercy, pain and elation."

Whether they relate to the characters or not, most teenagers will inject sex into even the most unerotic of situations. This became apparent earlier this year when staff marking national curriculum English tests encountered a range of unconventional readings of Macbeth. The answers were published in a TES online chatroom.

"Lady Macbeth had a desire to have Macbeth on the throne", so she "asked him to show her his manhood", suggested one pupil. Asked to comment on the subject, the pupil's teacher said: "Boys in my class think Lady Macbeth didn't get enough sex."

Teenagers will always read into the plays' more salacious scenes, but it is not always necessary to capitalise on this aspect to put bums on seats, says Jacqui O'Hanlon, the Royal Shakespeare Company's director of education.

"Shakespeare's plays contain the full range of human emotion and life," she says. "Some of them are wonderfully rude, but we don't have to 'play up' this element of his work to engage young people. Pupils are able to connect with the contemporary relevance of the texts when they engage with them actively, exploring the choices that we make to bring the page to the stage."

Mr McNeilly of Nate goes so far as to say that using sex and smut to "sell" set texts to teenagers is a reductive approach. "Sex and smut might indeed be interesting to a wide variety of people of differing ages but it would be ridiculous to foreground any text's more salacious qualities in order to 'sell' it," he says. "If that is the best teachers can come up with, they are either teaching the wrong texts or in the wrong job."

According to Simon Gibbons, a lecturer in education at King's College, London, teachers should choose texts that have enduring themes and issues. Some of the texts he includes in this canon are Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

"Some would be chosen, such as Jane Eyre and Great Expectations, since they focus on growing up and coming of age, which will have resonance for pupils at key stage 4," he says. "Others may be chosen for the strength of story or, in the case of Gothic texts, these have an enduring appeal."

There are countless ways of making texts more accessible to pupils. Looking at modern reworkings of classic stories is one of them, says David Stevens, PGCE course director at Durham University.

"Any approach to classic texts - novels, short stories, non-fiction, plays and poetry - that emphasises potential connections between the themes, plots and characters featured in these texts and the worlds of contemporary pupils is, in my view, to be welcomed," he says. "And the bridge that can make such connections possible may well be found in the study of modern adaptations of the classics, whether closely or loosely based on the originals."

Most classic texts have various film and television adaptations. One approach is to look at scenes from the text, compare them with different screen versions and consider the different directors' interpretations.

"Encourage pupils to script or storyboard their own versions of a key moment from a text," says Mr Gibbons. "This can certainly help to engage pupils with plot, character, setting and theme."

Another popular lesson idea is encouraging pupils to think of modern equivalents to each of the characters - they almost always have something in common with contemporary life, facing similar challenges that our society faces today. The BBC offers a modern version of The Canterbury Tales, which transplants Chaucer's medieval stories to a world of asylum seekers, reality television and Botox injections.

While the BBC's new version takes up the same themes of religion, faith and bigotry, in it the heroine of The Man of Law's Tale is a devoutly religious Nigerian asylum seeker who turns up in a small boat in Chatham docks. The licentious, domineering and five-times-married main character in The Wife of Bath's Tale is a slave to Botox injections in her quest for eternal youth, and The Miller's Tale is played out by the celebrity-obsessed regulars at a Kent pub's karaoke night.

Although Mr Stevens would endorse the study of the contemporary-set versions of classic texts, he does voice some concern. "Pupils must be taught to be fully aware of what is an interpretative version and what is the original," he says. So GCSE examiners of English literature should not have to read about the fish-tank scene in Romeo and Juliet when it appears only in the Baz Luhrmann film version, for example.

"It seems to me that good, imaginative English teaching should be all about making resourceful connections - the teaching and learning of literature should be at the heart of this project."

Quite often, teachers will employ aspects of popular culture to awaken an interest in their pupils.

The Canadian rapper Baba Brinkman has completed several tours of British schools with a rap act based on the writings of authors such as Chaucer and Shakespeare. Mr Brinkman was recruited to the classroom by a researcher from Cambridge University's English faculty after he attracted rave reviews for his show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. His unique approach involves translating the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare into hip hop lyrics.

According to Mr Gibbons, this attempt to make classic works more palatable for pupils is an effective strategy. "Such 'interactive' approaches help the process of overcoming the linguistic demands that often present the main challenges for pupils engaging with classic fiction," he says.

Teachers could also encourage pupils to consider and tell stories from their own experience that share the concerns of texts being studied, says Mr Gibbons. "This is so that they can place them in the context of their own experiences," he says. "This can be particularly interesting in multicultural, multiethnic classrooms, where it may be the case that pupils know stories originating from their own cultures that share similar themes with the fiction being studied."

Ultimately, the challenges offered by set texts, at whatever level, should only be linguistic - the stories should always have enduring resonance and relevance to the world today. Imaginative English teaching is about making that connection.


- Using ICT to teach set texts

- Teaching Shakespeare in the EFL classroom http:seas3.elte.huangolparkTextsVinceMateVinceTeachingShakespeare.pdf

- A lesson plan for pupils to discover the rhythm of sonnets and then write their own www.folger.edueduLesPlanDtl.cfm?lpid=583

- Activities to use in class based on various Shakespeare plays www.leavingcert.netskoooljunior.asp?id=1468.

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