Should we study literature ‘in context’? Some Year 10 students respond…

If you teach the IB’s Middle Years Programme you will be familiar with the Global Contexts. These used to be referred to as lenses through which difficult subjects can be viewed more meaningfully, or with greater context, in the ‘real world’, with all the interconnectedness that implies. You can find out more about them here.

There is an ongoing debate among English Literature teachers I know about how necessary ‘context’ is in analysing a text. Does it help if we know more about Shakespeare’s life and times as we study, say, ‘Hamlet’? Do we need to know that Dylan Thomas was an alcoholic? Do we have a better understanding of Ezra Pound’s poetry if we know he was a fascist sympathiser? What does it add? And what does it take away?

I remember talking to a very well-renowned writer, whose novels are studied at A level, and he said:

‘You don’t need to know anything about me if you study my books. Nothing. All that is an unnecessary distraction’.

This made my next questions – about how his background influences his work – awkward.

How much should we respect his position? Do we better understand the value of a work of art if we emphasise its political, social, historical, and biographical contexts? Or should it be studied in isolation? Should we focus on the language only?

I thought I would ask my Year 10 MYP students to answer this.

I set them up with a small project, and the aim was to give brief presentations answering this question:

To what extent is our understanding of literature deepened by greater contextualisation?

I asked them to analyse ‘Points of View’ by Lucinda Roy and ‘Water’ by Philip Larkin.

Here is the Google Doc I shared with them to establish the nature of the tasks. You can see that I provided some context for the Roy poem (but left out any biographical details). I deliberately told them nothing about Larkin.
We had one lesson to read the poems, and one homework period to prepare for the presentations.

Their conclusions were interesting, and are ongoing. For some, it is clear that the Global Contexts provided by the IB offered a framework through which they could better make sense of the poem. Not only were they able to approach the text in a structured way, but they were also able to see it from different (pre-determined) points of view. One student – James – was not alone in thinking that ‘contextualisation can greatly organise and therefore deepen our understanding of the poem’.

Some of the students I teach – at all levels – struggle to analyse an ‘unseen’ poem because the first stage – the annotation (or mark up) – is too undefined a process. Others see it for what it is: namely, a creative act, a process of engaging with the author. Anything which gives some students a structure (even if it’s a basic mnemonic such as SCASI, which stands for Setting, Characterisation, Action, Style, Ideas) is a help.

Here you can see some marked-up slides from one group: it was clear from looking at these that this would be a presentation focusing very much on the language, rather than the context. I like seeing this sort of work: it is dense, involved, a map of raw thought. This group’s presentation conceded that context helped to gain different perspectives: they looked at the poem as a feminist text, but concluded that all final responses begin and end with the personal, not the purely political. Another student – Finlay – commented that:

‘Without any knowledge of the background of the writer we were able to enjoy the poem and decipher many ideas and concepts that may have been in it; but had we known her intentions for the piece as we researched it we would have been biased and perhaps not explored other possible themes, such as if she was a feminist we may not have looked at the political side of the piece.’

I found this an interesting response: for some students context hinders meaningful, personal exploration. It gets in the way of reading the text as it ought to be read. It is the same position as that held by the famous novelist I referred to above.

For Tom, the more meaningful analysis came not through contexts, but simply by focusing on the language (something which most English teachers insist on above and beyond everything else). He wrote in his final remarks that:

‘Roy’s poem is convoluted, but deeply philosophical. The confusion of the imagery and metaphor complements the fact that problem with water is multilayered. This is why contextualisation is vital in understanding all aspects of the language in this piece.’

This is a sophisticated analysis, and it, again, puts the analysis of language at the core of his emerging argument. I found myself asking: is it the case that for a Year 10 student a more original, nuanced and sophisticated response is always going to be centred on the language, rather than the political and sociological contexts that might, outwardly at least, support another student in their analysis? Or is that a reductive position to take?

Such discussions have real implications for teachers and students. For example, AQA’s new English Literature A level course clearly foregrounds an historicist approach to studying literature. This is the opening to that specification:

English Literature A’s historicist approach to the study of literature rests upon reading texts within a shared context. Working from the belief that no text exists in isolation but is the product of the time in which it was produced, English Literature A encourages students to explore the relationships that exist between texts and the contexts within which they are written, received and understood. Studying texts within a shared context enables students to investigate and connect them, drawing out patterns of similarity and difference using a variety of reading strategies and perspectives. English Literature A privileges the process of making autonomous meaning, encouraging students to debate and challenge the interpretations of other readers as they develop their own informed personal responses. The historicist method of studying texts diachronically (across a very broad time period) is at the centre of the specification.

I imagine such a statement would put off as many English teachers as it attracts.

We didn’t have time to discuss ‘Water’ by Larkin in any real depth, although one student – Johann – when asked to consider which poem they felt was the more original and interesting, wrote that:

‘Water is the better poem. This is because the meaning behind ‘Water’ is thoughtful. It surprises me that there is not a religion praising water because water is the source of life.’

When I read Johann’s comments I thought to myself: would he have thought differently if I had told him that Larkin was an atheist who had no time for organised religion (‘that vast moth-eaten musical brocade’), or for cults or followings? Would that have enlightened him, or provided a new insight? Perhaps not. Perhaps context comes after the first, refreshing draught of pure insight is taken to quench our curiosity. For a student that initial, sometimes electrifying connection with a great work of art, should come as something personal, intimate, and profound. Context, sometimes, isn’t always all.

Why should teachers write textbooks?

Text books and study guides have a bad press in British schools.  Teachers – especially in my subject (English) – often claim that using them in class shows a certain lack of originality.  In my experience, those who teach science, or languages, as well as History and Geography, are more open to using them, but after inspecting quite a few independent schools I still come across homemade resources in class, or badly photocopied Teacher Toolkit stuff, rather than an enthusiastic and extensive use of textbooks.  It’s not unusual to see a stack of expensively-bought, up-to-date textbooks, sitting on the side of a classroom, unused and unloved.  The great shame is that, very often, these books are better researched, better written, more differentiated, and simply more interesting, than some of the pages being circulated by the teacher.

Why is this? Does it spring from a deep-seated sense of insecurity on the teacher’s part? Do some teachers feel threatened by textbooks?  Or is it something else? Do teachers think that what they produce is inherently more bespoke for their students?  More personal? Do they think they are simply better?

What I do know is that many teachers spend hours every week creating new resources, and adapting old ones, for their classes.  I once had a meeting with some senior ministers who were staggered that this continued to be the case in so many schools: they saw this constant writing of resources as a waste of time – time that could be better spent teaching and marking.  The teachers at that meeting defended their practice saying that they preferred to write their own resources for their students, rather than import them.

Now a confession: I write textbooks and have edited two Shakespeare texts, and I’m proud of what I produce. Arrogant though it sounds, I view the work I am currently doing on Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’ as something creative.

I believe that writing textbooks is some of the best professional development there is for teachers.  Why?

Firstly, it makes me a better teacher because writing forces me to think about the text itself, and to get to know it intimately.  I can now teach this Sixth Form set text next year very well as I have had to analyse it for months. I have spent a lot of time reading very good writing about the novel, such as this by John Updike, or this  by Daniel Zalewski.I have also had to approach it as an author and teacher, writing tasks which will (I hope) engage students and extend their knowledge and understanding of the text.  I have had to get to know the new specifications (I learned, to my dismay, that AL students will be able to study a Ben Elton novel if they wish).  All this is excellent professional development.

Secondly, it makes me a better student.  Being edited is an experience that I think all teachers should experience because it returns you to being at the receiving end of (at times) some pretty frank criticism.  When I hand back marked essays to my students and see their faces drop I show them what has just been done to my work by editors and readers: favourite phrases deleted, questions raised about clarity of argument, suggestions for development…and so it goes on. You very quickly have to develop a thick skin if you’re going to publish something that is promoted by a publisher and bought by the public. I tell my students that in order to get better you have to accept criticism, and that to be good at writing you have to write, and then re-write, and re-write…until it’s good enough.  Writing is not some precious art, and perfect, polished prose does not flow from the pen straight to the page.  It takes work, it can be tough.  Importantly, they begin to see that getting better is a collaborative process.

I use textbooks all the time now, building them into my planning, and I think my lessons are better as a result.  And if using such books can free up my planning time to do some writing myself, or to spend it reading, marking, or even not working…then so much the better for me – and the students I teach.


Weighing up writing commitments

This is not a blog entry as such but, rather, a question to myself. I would like to blog more, but I wonder how full-time teachers find the time, especially if they have family commitments. Also, I’m writing a book at the moment and that should take priority. I’m interested in how much time ‘yer average blogger’ spends writing a blog entry, and what outlet does it provide that regular writing, and other creative acts (such as teaching) do not fulfil.

My aim is to blog more on issues affecting teaching, especially in the independent sector. I move on to a new, senior, position in September, and I would also be interested in connecting with other bloggers who work at independent schools in senior positions.

A blog originally written for the Department for Education

Goldie Maple Academy is a middle school situated at the heart of a vast area of social housing, known as ‘the projects’, in the borough of Queens in New York. Of all the schools I could have gone to, why visit this one? Well, because it is only one of two Core Knowledge schools in the State, which means that right at its pedagogical heart lies Ed Hirsch’s manifesto of cultural literacy: for Hirsch, there is an irreducible body of core knowledge that each child should know if they are to make sense of the world and, importantly, progress, both academically and socially. I was lucky that, as part of my CPD programme, my school paid for me to go to the States to talk to teachers, educators and, of course, students.

The Principal of the school is Angela Logan-Smith, and she is one of the most remarkable head teachers I have ever met. To say she is passionate about her job, and the life-changing impact she and her staff have on children who, very often, come from very disadvantaged backgrounds, does her a disservice. As she showed me around the school I sensed a tangible excitement at the progress her students are making with her teachers, and I say that because, to use a modish phrase, their learning was very visible: folders are hanging in corridors, each one containing work which is immaculately presented, the handwriting clear and carefully cursive in almost all year groups. In every piece of work there was, manifestly, a pride in what had been achieved.

There was also an atmosphere of calm at the school, even though sirens wailed outside so often that I began to screen them out unconsciously. The classes I saw were focused, the pupils engaged, and in each one the teachers (sometimes without seeing us there) repeatedly asked the students to recall what they had previously learned, and to apply it. The curriculum is unapologetically rigorous: students are stretched, being asked to grapple with difficult texts, and challenging mathematical problems, but they seem to thrive on it. They are a credit to the school: they wave, surreptitiously, to me when their teacher is writing on the whiteboard, smiling, holding up their written work, and when we walk to other classrooms between periods the children walk (they don’t run), holding the doors open not just for us, but for each other.

Of course, things are not perfect. I was surprised, and saddened to learn that although the school is oversubscribed in the pre-K years some parents take the older children out, perhaps because, it was mooted, as they learn, acquiring new knowledge, new views of the world, new languages, they become more distant from those at home who remain, socially, fixed. It is a complex area that requires more research. For Angela Logan-Smith the desire to fight for every child’s right to be educated, empowered, to better themselves, remains undimmed. ‘Some kids come here expecting to read Dr Seuss in English’ she said over coffee, ‘and then we give them Hamlet! And that’s their right!” Her laugh was infectious, her can-do attitude almost the personification of the American spirit. Outside, the tailend of a hurricane was passing by, and Queens, tough place though it undoubtedly is, felt, suddenly, a little more welcoming. I left the school smiling, buoyed up by the impact teaching can make. It is a uniquely wonderful feeling that, I believe, only this profession can inspire.

A first post…

I’ve resisted writing a blog for a long time, but, after conversations with a number of people who I respect, I have decided to make a start.  I am working in a number of areas of education at the moment – as a teacher, in policy, across sectors, as an editor – and so my thoughts might be of interest to others.  I hope this platform gives me the chance to articulate to myself, as well as to others, some of the most important issues affecting those in education today.