When I got my first teaching job, I visited the school at the end of July to find out what I’d be teaching the following September. The Head of Department talked me through which GCSE texts I might want to go for and then, when we got to my Key Stage 3 classes, the brand new sets of Holes and Skellig had, unfortunately, already been nabbed by other teachers but he gave me the keys to the stockroom and told me to pick from whatever was left. On one side of the room were piles of unloved, dog-eared class sets of A Kestrel for Knave, Z for Zachariah and Walkabout and on the other were newish looking sets of Stone Cold, Daz 4 Zoe, Goggle Eyes, The Tulip Touch and The Demon Headmaster. Fresh from my PGCE course, I knew the most important factors in determining a class reader were 1) Would it engage the students, especially the boys? (This meant Anne Fine was out!) and 2) Did it deal with familiar social issues which I could explore in class? Considerations of literary merit were entirely absent from the decision making process. This is not to say that YA novels don’t have literary merit – many do (Although Daz 4 Zoe and Stone Cold are two of the worst books I’ve read, let alone taught!) – just that it never occurred to my newly minted teacher self that this might be important.
Back in late 90s, I’m not sure if I could even have articulated the popular notion that English was a ‘skills-based’ subject – I would certainly have been hard pressed to say what those skills were – but I knew that the main thing was for my students to develop empathy for the characters in the texts they studied and so I dutifully planned schemes of work heavy on diary entries and other imaginative responses, alongside lessons which focussed on designing book covers and newspaper front pages to demonstrate an understanding of ‘the media’.
I look back more in sorrow than in anger. I taught my students nothing – NOTHING – about the vast and beautiful world of literature. But, as far as I could tell, this was what everyone else was doing too. The entire raison d’etre of the subject was engagement, relevance and empathy. Honestly, if it hadn’t been for the KS3 SATs I probably wouldn’t even have bothered with Shakespeare.
English teaching has changed a lot since then. Many schools have taken the opportunity to survey the breadth of literature in Key Stage 3 and find ways to bring long neglected classics to brilliant and vibrant life, but, although the titles may have changed, the young adult novel continues to hold sway in many English classrooms. Much recent debate has centred around whether this is a good thing.
Text choice is profoundly important. The flesh and life blood of an English curriculum will be the texts we choose to teach. Benjamin Franklin once observed that children should be taught a mix of “what is useful and what is ornamental,” but:
It would be well if they could be taught everything that is useful and everything that is ornamental: but art is long and their time is short. It is therefore proposed that they learn those things that are likely to be most useful and most ornamental.
Benjamin Franklin, His Life as He Wrote it
Curriculum time is strictly finite and we must make some brutal choices about what and what not to teach. How are we to determine which texts choices are most useful and ornamental? We could perhaps begin by asking a series of searching questions about the choices on offer. These could include:
- What texts do we believe students have an entitlement to experience before they leave school?
- How likely are students to have already experienced a text independently or in some other form?
- To what extent will texts introduce students to ideas, contexts and vocabulary which will be unfamiliar?
- Should the chosen texts represent a genuine diversity of voices (including older, less popular voices)?
- What is the text’s lexical challenge? How demanding is the vocabulary and syntax?
- How appropriate is the content for the age group we’re teaching?
- To what extent has the text had ‘conversations’ backwards and forwards with other texts, that is to say, how influential it has been?
- Is the text of sufficient quality? Does it introduce a broad range of literary conventions and offer sufficient stylistic merit to repay careful study?
- Has the text been chosen for enjoyment or betterment? Does it represent easy or ‘serious’ reading?
- And lastly, do you like it? There’s little point teaching texts we feel are inferior to other possible choices that could fulfil the same purposes.
If we use these questions to help us weigh the relative merits of the texts we’re inclined to choose, we should be able to gather a more objective view of whether this text will be a better fit than that. Too seldom are we mindful of the opportunity cost of teaching one thing rather than another. The question should never be “Is X a good text?’ but ‘How does X compare to Y? And Z?’
There continues to be a widespread notion that the only – or most important – factor we should use to evaluate whether to include a text in the English curriculum is how enjoyable we think students will find it. While this isn’t irrelevant, it is an odd way of designing children’s curricular experience. It’s hard to imagine maths teachers debating which areas of mathematics are more enjoyable and deciding not to teach, say, algebra because students wouldn’t find it sufficiently engaging. In truth, teachers make curricular choices engaging or otherwise through their teaching. With sufficient enthusiasm, we can make any topic come alive; with sufficient reticence we can suck the life out of even the most fascinating ideas.
I’m particularly interested in idea of texts’ influence. Seeing as ‘art is long but time is short’ maybe we have a duty to introduce students to texts that do the best job of opening up aspects of the world which would otherwise remain closed. The oft-quoted idea that students have an entitlement to be inducted in to the ‘conversation of humankind’ helps guides towards choice that can best fulfil this lofty ambition. In Curriculum as Conversation, the American educator and English professor, Arthur Applebee argues that the curriculum should be imagined as a conversation between students and the world ‘out there,’ mediated by teachers. The linguist HP Grice’s suggested that conversations, if they are to be meaningful, should conform to four principles; those of quantity, quality, relation and manner. Although these principles are used by speakers to ensure effective communication, Applebee suggests that if we view the curriculum as a conversation then the same maxims ought to apply.
- Quality – Not only must curriculum materials be clear and accurate, the texts studied must be complex and challenging enough to provoke depth of conversation.
- Quantity – Clearly a curriculum has to be sufficiently broad to introduce those aspects of the domain deemed essential but it should not be so extensive as to overwhelm the opportunity to challenge assumptions, in this way, the breadth of a curriculum is held in tension with the depth in which topics are explored.
- Manner – For students to make meaning they must be given opportunities to argue, debate, challenge, question and critique the knowledge
- Relatedness – For a curriculum to be meaningful it must be carefully sequenced with each aspect chosen for its connection to every other topic as much as for its individual value. We will explore the ways topics and texts can be arranged in a coherent narrative.
I explore how these principles could be applied to the English curriculum at length in Making Meaning in English. Here we will restrict ourselves to a discussion of the principle of quality. Applebee suggests that “quality is always a function of the larger traditions with which curriculum is embedded.” (p.54) This means we need to take account of questions about fairness and representation. The texts we select for study should not only attempt to provide an experience of what’s ‘best,’ they should reflect the need for definitions of ‘best’ to be inclusive and open to change. Many recently published YA novels do a wonderful job of presenting a diversity of experiences from a diversity of voices, but are they of sufficiently high quality? And, more to the point, what are the trade offs in quality between these texts and others we might select for study? At the same time, many of the texts that have long occupied a position in the canon can be uncomfortable in terms of the attitudes and opinions either of their writers or in terms of the situations they represent. Should, for instance, Steinbeck’s perennial favourite Of Mice and Men be assured a place in curriculum? Would it be better to replace it with a YA novel such as Malorie Blackman’s equally popular Noughts and Crosses? Let’s try to be objective:
Of course, this is not really objective but it does allow me to see what each text is offering in comparison to other. But, of course, this is a false choice. If I’m looking for a novel to study with Year 9 then there’s a near infinite variety to choose from. Maybe the ‘best’ choice would be one that is superior to both of these. For instance, I’ve recently become obsessed with Zora Neale Huston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God which, at least in my opinion, far superior to either the texts above. (If you’re interested, we’ve had a go at putting together a scheme of work – feedback welcomed!)
Another aspect of text quality to consider is its ability to support meaningful conversation. What a text has to say and the complexity of how it is said result in richer, deeper curriculum conversations.
…there are many examples of popular novels and poetry that students find accessible and interesting to read on their own [but when] they are brought into the classroom, however (as they sometimes are to encourage ‘reluctant’ readers or ‘motivate’ uninterested students), there may be little there to sustain conversation. Instruction is likely to deteriorate into vocabulary development and reading practice, because there is little else to do with the text. … Student interest and quality of materials do not need to stand in tension with one another, but too often teachers have treated them as though such tensions were inevitable. [my emphasis]
Applebee, Curriculum as Conversation p.55
This, I think, gets to the heart of whether YA novels should have a place in the curriculum as objects of study. The tensions that do exist between high quality and student interests are where English teachers do their most interesting work. Most of us had seen Shakespeare tortured to death thorough lacklustre instruction and we’ve all experienced students falling in love, despite themselves, with the grandeur of Macbeth, Othello or Romeo and Juliet. There may well be literature written for young adults out there that can resolve these tensions, it may even be that there are YA works that exceed the quality of more canonical choices, but if there I’ve yet to see them make into any of the English curriculums I’ve had the opportunity to examine.
It’s possible to argue that quick, accessible reads without spending time on analysis can supplement the disciplined study of language and literature, but I still think this runs into the difficulty of opportunity cost. For instance, I think have an understanding of Greek mythology and Homer’s epics provides a solid foundation for later study, but I’d still rather read something like Simon Armitage’s earthy translation of the Odyssey than spending the same time on something like Percy Jackson. Whilst there are always opportunities to supplement an English curriculum with YA novels, there’s almost always another, better option out there.
Being ambitious for our students to experience the highest quality texts as part of their entitlement in studying English is disproportionately more important for some students. It’s still not uncommon for English departments to claim that ‘their students’ are unable to appreciate higher quality texts and that they’re better off with Maggot Moon or The Hate U Give. It’s important to remember that nobody has ever risen to a low expectation, and, as Jerome Bruner explains, “any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.” If we decide that ‘kids like these’ either can’t or shouldn’t be given access to the highest quality texts we are ensuring that they are cut adrift from their ability to engage meaningfully with a wider and deeper understanding of the world.
None of this is to argue that YA isn’t worth reading. There are some superb YA novels published in recent years that I would be happy to recommend to students. But, as to whether YA has a place in the English curriculum, I guess it depends on what you think English is for. If English is perceived as an adjunct of PHSE with texts treated as vehicles for discussing social issues then YA may have a place. But if English is about the disciplined study of language and literature, YA’s place is far more tenuous.