It’s the start of a new school year, which means that English Literature students across the country are getting stuck into their new set texts. Novels will be poured over, plays will be acted out in class with varying degrees of enthusiasm and poetry will elicit a grimace before maybe, hopefully, some delight.
Perhaps no other subject is so at the mercy of variable content as English Literature. In Maths and Science, there are some basic principles and processes, some essential information that has to be covered. In English, however, when reinforcing core skills there is a real range of possible texts for exam boards and then schools to choose from.
Additionally, these texts were written at least partly to entertain and to be enjoyed. Shakespeare wouldn’t have gotten very far in the court of Elizabeth I and James I if his plays hadn’t kept those monarchs entertained! There is a lot of scope, then, for English Literature students to really enjoy what they are studying.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Some books, some plays, are, well ... boring. Some are badly written, and some seem very dated to younger students.
And, it gets worse. Many of these texts are even boring for the teachers and tutors themselves, the very people who are meant to inspire a love of literature in students.
Take me, for example. I can’t stand the very common GCSE set text for 20th-century drama, An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley. I find the plot hard to believe, the characters hard to sympathise with and the sententious, wooden dialogue hard to keep patience with. But, I taught it last year and I’m going to teach it this year.
So, I’ve been reflecting on how to improve at teaching literature texts I don’t enjoy or find interesting, as I’m worried it will impact my students. I’ve come up with the following ideas, using An Inspector Calls as my jumping-off point.
Link the text to things I do find interesting!
If I don’t find the text itself interesting, there are always ways to link it to things I do find interesting. In GCSE English Literature, it is important to be able to link set texts to the historical and literary context in which they were written.
For An Inspector Calls, the play is set before the First World War, but was written and first performed just as the Second World War was coming to an end in 1945. This is a hugely interesting period of social change and dramatic political developments! The interplay between the text and history is rich, and by discussing the ideologies of capitalism and socialism, or exploring the changes to British society from the 1910s to 1940s, I find I really get into my swing as a tutor.
Watch and discuss alternative productions
Different interpretations, productions and performances can totally change the feel and mood of a play. One of the reasons I don’t enjoy An Inspector Calls is that on the page it feels lifeless, and the stage directions come across as fussy and pedantic. By dipping into actual performances of the play, a lot of these issues can be swept aside by powerful performances and effective staging.
When teaching drama, then, a great way to open up the text is to focus as much as possible on performances and different versions across time.
Luckily, for An Inspector Calls this is easily done - it is a popular play, despite my reservations, and there are a lots of versions to choose from - a 2015 adaptation by the BBC starring David Thewlis, for example.
Challenge my students to disagree!
English Literature is a more subjective GCSE than almost any other. If I don’t enjoy a text, that’s not to say my students won’t!
One approach might be to ask my students to write a review of the play or the production. This task would be a powerful way for students to sharpen their thinking about a play. A few weeks ago I went to the Playhouse Theatre to see The Jungle, a play about the refugee camp in Calais that was demolished in 2016. I ended up not really enjoying the play, but in trying to pinpoint why I found myself really engaging with the script, the performances and its staging. In writing reviews, maybe they’ll even change my mind.
So, ultimately, lack of enjoyment of a literary text doesn’t have to be a barrier to understanding.
Moreover, I feel I’ll be a more confident and inspiring tutor from having reflected on teaching those texts I really struggle to enjoy.
Oliver F is a fantastic tutor who teaches a range of subjects including English, History and Oxbridge Admissions. Oliver holds a DPhil in History from the University of Oxford. He has tutored a range of students over some years, including university undergraduates. If you would like to book a lesson with Oliver, get in touch with him by visiting his profile here!
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