Ways to keep it fresh

6th October 2000 at 01:00
TEACHING LITERATURE 11-18. Edited by Martin Blocksidge. Continuum pound;12.99. (Hardback pound;45)

TEACHING DRAMA 11-18. Edited by Helen Nicholson. Continuum pound;15.99

Making it new and keeping it fresh are the twin concerns of all good teaching in the arts, and these two collections of essays by experienced teachers certainly demonstrate a range of inspired commitment. "Do it because it has always been done" is no argument for anything, concludes Robert Eaglestone, writing about the often fraught transition from secondary school to university English studies, but none of the contributors to Teaching Literature 11-18 seems in need of this reminder.

In all three sections of the book, focusing on key stages 3, 4 and post-16, they contend and negotiate with the curriculum. Although - as Martin Blocksidge points out in his introduction - this is "not a how-to book" but an attempt to answer the question "which texts do we teach and why?" . Imaginative teaching strategies are everywhere implicit in the enthusiastic response of gifted teachers to the texts they are addressing. There is evident delight in students' own responses, a number of which are included and commented on as an indication of how effectively a text "works".

Perhaps inevitably there is a certain amount of inspirational rhetoric:

"Literature supplies a longing in the human heart and mind." But there is a recognition that this needs saying in an educational system where, as another contributor observes, "the key stage 4 curriculum is so crowded and constrained that the professional freedom of a teacher to choose works that she or he thinks might interest a class has almst disappeared in state schools." Professional freedom is what this book is about, and the means by which it can be preserved through the sharing of experience. The book is like a really successful conference: you come away more convinced than ever of the challenge and importance of the work you are doing.

At first glance, Teaching Literature 11-18 seems to be more of a manual, studded with bullet points and lengthy bibliographical notes. This gives the impression of a subject anxious to establish itself, and considerable space is given to methods of assessment as well as plenty of rhetoric, as in its companion volume Teaching Drama 11-18: "Physical theatre is a renaissance of humanism."

Following the same three-sectioned progression, this book sets out to demonstrate how the experience of drama can "make you understand something new". Its contributors examine the whole process of acting "from inception to reception". They address all the basic problems faced by teachers - for example, how to "scaffold" a lesson so that the children do not just rush into action - and move on to wider issues of identity, how drama can "reflect the dynamic cultural landscape in which young people live".

As with Teaching Literature 11-18, several of the essays consider particular texts in detail - from Sophocles and Shakespeare to Willy Russell and Timberlake Wertenbaker. Making it new and keeping it fresh in drama lessons is all about "taking the space without preconceptions" as Andy Kempe suggests, quoting Mike Shepherd of Kneehigh Theatre, just as, in literature, teacher and student together take the text in exactly the same spirit.

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