We’ve all been there, scrolling on our phones, watching a video or leafing through a book when it hits us: I have to use this with my students. From chemists finding new ways to set things on fire during a YouTube binge, to PE teachers incorporating “marginal gains”, harnessing that spark of inspiration is an absolutely vital part of being an educator.
In the past I’ve had these eureka moments over the film Louder Than a Bomb – about a US high school “poetry slam” competition – a monologue in an episode of Still Game and a Jay Rayner restaurant review. Often these serendipitous finds allow me to really stretch my students’ abilities – sometimes without them even realising – but there are times when they also provide an opportunity to bring the learning to the students.
It has become fashionable to deride the very notion of incorporating “relevant” – note the pejorative tone – material into the classroom. This position has boosted more than a few profiles (and presumably bank balances) in recent years, and there are some who would have you believe that any attempt, however fleeting, to make the world inside our classrooms reflect the one in which our students actually live is simply a betrayal, a dumbing down of the curriculum that robs those before us of the “things they need to know”.
For me, that is a blinkered, safety-first approach – an easy option predicated on the assumption, implicit or otherwise, that a specific and privileged set of social, cultural, intellectual and economic perspectives can, or should, represent the “core knowledge” that we teachers must pour into the minds of our students. This is not to say working-class students shouldn’t be given the opportunity and encouragement to access the literature generally regarded as the preserve of middle classes; simply that there is no reason for that goal to be allowed to utterly dominate consideration of the texts to which our students are exposed.
One aspect of my role as an English lecturer involves teaching National 4 students as part of a programme aimed at helping people to successfully access further education. It’s a particularly rewarding part of job but it also an especially challenging one, not least because it necessarily takes place within the long shadow cast by a variety of negative, sometimes downright destructive, educational experiences.
Which brings us to Poverty Safari, the debut book by Glasgow writer, rapper and commentator Darren “Loki” McGarvey, who came to a lot of people’s attention with his appearance on Question Time at the end of May.
A bestseller pretty much from the moment of publication, it has won praise from right across the social and political spectrum – and just last week won the Orwell Prize for books. First minster Nicola Sturgeon called it an “important and powerful” piece of work; on the front cover, JK Rowling praises a “savage, wise and witty tour-de-force”; even Tory MSP Adam Tompkins considers it a “must-read for anyone in Scotland interested in the truth about social policy”.
It’s also brutal, blending an unflinching look at the violence, neglect and despair of McGarvey’s own upbringing with an acerbic brand of social commentary which, though sometimes flawed, is nevertheless a welcome counterpoint to the established (and establishment) consensus on a wide range of socioeconomic and political issues.
It is no exaggeration to say that it is a difficult book to put down, and yet while I raced through the chapters I found myself continually returning to one section: the introduction. By the time I’d finished I must have read it a dozen times and was dead-set on sharing it with my National 4 students.
It starts like this: “People like me don’t write books – or so my head keeps telling me. ‘Write a book?’ it sneers over my shoulder, ‘you haven’t read enough of them to even attempt such a thing.’”
McGarvey goes on to tell the story of how his early love of language – he “precociously corrected [his] mother’s terrible grammar” at just five years old – eventually transformed into a “false belief” that “big books were for certain types of people who went to fancy schools, lived in fancy houses, spoke in fancy accents and ate fancy food”. Though he points the blame for this partly at himself, he also illuminates the circumstances within which his decisions were framed.
After giving everyone time to read the text at their own pace, I asked for their responses, wondering aloud whether it reminded any of them of how they had felt during their time at school. One student said: “It’s how I feel now,” as several others nodded their agreement. They went on to discuss their experiences of education alongside their struggles with books, but also talked enthusiastically about the literature that they had read and enjoyed.
I told them about my own reaction to McGarvey’s story, about realising that I had never faced the sorts of difficulties with reading described in the text and worrying that, as an English teacher, my past decisions may even have reinforced these barriers for others.
And yes, we did the usual things. The class completed a set of questions designed to help them work their way through the text, focusing on McGarvey’s central points and his writing style. They went on to write a critical essay about the text itself, developing their own response to an essay question by selection and exploring a range of evidence.
Students who progress into National 5 now have a more secure grounding in the skills required to engage in a complex analysis of new literature. We even discussed issues relating to the “poverty-related attainment gap”.
But the really important achievement wasn’t the paperwork we generated or the boxes we ticked, nor the fact that they’ll now find it easier to pass an English exam.
No – what really matters, at least to me, is how this class responded to the text. One student described it as “inspiring and powerful”. Another wrote that McGarvey “restored my faith that an ambition can be accomplished”.
And the best reaction of all?
“It’s never too late for the new beginning.”
James McEnaney is a journalist, FE lecturer and former secondary teacher