Going beyond the blether

21st November 1997 at 00:00
TEACHING SCOTTISH LITERATURE. Edited by Alan MacGillivray. Edinburgh University Press. Pounds 19.95.

At a recent Higher Still training day, while I struggled through the huge pile of support material, it occurred to me that the real value of these days could be summed up in one word: blethering. For no matter how slick and sure the official presenters are, no matter how ingenious their overhead transparencies, they cannot possibly hope to match the value of the informal "cascading'' which goes on in the groups.

At my table the blethering turned to Scottish literature: while most people agreed that the increasing emphasis on incorporating specifically Scottish texts into the curriculum was probably a good thing, there was understandable concern that resources of sufficient quality, especially at Higher level, were thin on the ground. Although Teaching Scottish Literature does not seek to address specific examination requirements, it provides a wealth of ideas upon which practitioners at all levels might draw to bring study of Scottish language and literature into the heart of their course work.

The book consists of four sections - Scottish literature, Scottish language, core syllabus suggestions and stage-related issues - each containing essays on aspects of the topic and a variety of exemplars for teachers. The 13 contributors include some of those who teach teachers, some who inspect teachers and a few who are still at the sharp end of the business.

With Higher Still in mind, I imagine that many teachers will turn immediately to James Allison's article, "Choosing and Using Scottish Texts'', in which he bravely tackles the question of what counts as a Scottish text (he's for inclusiveness) in a spirited and engaging way.

I was also interested in Morna Fleming's suggestions for using "difficult'' writers in "Learning Me My Language''. Why should we not try Dunbar and Henryson when most of us are prepared to explore the "foreign" language of Shakespeare? There is a sad irony in the fact that we Scottish speakers of standard English seem to be more comfortable building bridges to the English than to the Scottish half of our linguistic heritage.

Perhaps, though, with the emergence of what David Drever has identified as a "growing sense of Scottishness'', this will change, as teachers look for ways of engaging pupils in explorations of Scottish culture and identity. To this end, the book is a goldmine of ideas, for it contains some 53 exemplars of classroom approaches to a variety of texts and language investigations.

Although I could not resist a smile at editor Alan MacGillivray's suggestion that fully fleshed-out material would be "insulting'' to teachers - would that we were insulted more often in this manner - I take his point that it is not the purpose of this book to be examination-led, and any teacher looking for inspiration would be sure to find plenty of food for thought here.

There are some ideas which I am going to use: I was particularly taken by the suggestion of encouraging pupils to send in contributions to New Writing Scotland - I hope that the editors are ready for the flood - and also by approaches to Janice Galloway's The Trick is to Keep Breathing. Other exemplars suggest ideas for encouraging pupils to explore Scots vocabulary, using, for example, television weather forecasts (how many words are there for "dreich"?).

Whatever your particular interests - and with the caveat that it is probably more valuable to secondary than primary colleagues - this volume is a very useful resource, both for individual teachers and as a focus for departmental discussion. Furthermore, it should certainly be on the reading lists of those who will carry teaching in Scotland into the next century: pre-service trainers take note.

The writer is principal teacher of English at Eyemouth High School

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