“To use books rightly, is to go to them for help; to appeal to them when our own knowledge and power fail; to be led by them into wider sight and purer conception than our own, and to receive from them the united sentence of the judges and councils of all time, against our solitary and unstable opinions.”
― John Ruskin
We should share great works of literature – the literary canon – with all of our students. We should ‘use books rightly‘ as John Ruskin advised.
This statement should appear self-evident. There should be little debate. But, of course, there is a great deal of debate. There is discord, political posturing and perennial arguments about the ‘literary canon‘. This battle of the books sparks ire about who decides upon the formation of the canon. The ‘who‘ is followed by the ‘why‘. The ‘why‘ is followed by the ‘how‘. It is a very public scrap. Michael Gove may pitch Stephanie Meyer against George Eliot as a tasty Oxford Union polemic. Teachers in English offices will argue about the merits of ‘The Hunger Games’ pitted against Homeric epics.
Only I’m tired of such either/or debates that stimulate much sound and fury, but signify pretty much nothing. I want the best reading in the best of all possible worlds. I want to foster a connection with reading in my students that is strong and long-lasting. Balls to the binary thinking of classic versus modern! In the words of E. M Forster:
“Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted…”
I want to ensure my students love reading their canon and love great literature. I want to erase any divide. The question is how do we best leverage students into reading great literature for pleasure. Great literature by the measure of us all, but mainly by those who teach it.
The term canon derives from the Greek ‘kanon‘, meaning measuring stick. Since time immemorial we have gone about making such measures. Any such decisions are of course biased by the prevailing powers and opinions of the day. I have issues with the long-standing narrowness of the literary canon, but we do need a measuring stick. It should be flexible, but there can be a general consensus about great literature.
These past few weeks I have been planning to teach the great literature of what we consider the canon with my brilliant colleague, Nicole Fletcher (@NicoleFletcher0), for our new Year 8 SEN group. The group have a range of significant learning needs and they lack a host of literacy skills that many secondary school students take for granted. Traditional orthodoxy might claim that teaching any version of the literary canon simply wasn’t appropriate for such students. I feel this too often reflects a poverty of expectation and ambition. With teacherly craft knowledge and considered pedagogy, I am of the belief that pretty much no literary text is beyond any student (although I doubt ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ will be on the curriculum any time soon!). We have carefully chosen challenging adaptations of canonical texts to bridge what is too often seen as an insurmountable divide for young readers who lack reading fluency.
We first tackled the ‘what‘ question in our planning. With our Year 8 group this year the ambitious plan is to teach the entire chronological span of the literary canon (with a few gaps!). The ‘story’ is chronological in structure to help the students construct a sense-making narrative that connects our literary tradition (Christopher Booker’s ‘Seven Basic Plots‘ is very instructive in helping shape patterns that connect literature across centuries and genres). Term one will be ‘Myths and Monsters‘. Term two follows with ‘Star Crossed Shakespeare‘ – an immersive study of everything Shakespearean. The final term concludes with ‘Great Wars and Great Words‘ – the focus being Michael Morpurgo’s ‘Private Peaceful‘, classic World War One poetry and more.
The ‘why‘ was to provide these students with the ‘cultural currency‘ too often hidden from their view. To share with them the best of what has been thought, said and written. But mostly, it was to give them the power of stories. Giving them a ticket that can transport them into the rich depths of history, through breadths of time, back to the home of their heart. There really is little better I can share with them than the humble book.
Finally, the bit I am most interested in – the ‘how‘.
Trying not to Bewilder with Beowulf!
A selection of fiction and non-fiction from our ‘Myths and Monsters‘ scheme of learning.
At the heart of the learning about ‘Myths and Monsters‘ there is of course a significant amount of reading. We have selected ‘Beowolf: The Dragon Slayer‘, by Rosemary Sutcliff, as a core text in the first half-term. It is an excellent and accessible alternative version of the original Anglo-Saxon poetry, whilst still being highly challenging for the students in our group. We also plan to use it in conjunction with Seamus Heaney’s excellent translation of ‘Beowulf‘ so that the rough beauty of the poetry is not lost. The repeated cadences, alliteration and kenning may prove most memorable.
A crucial aspect in understanding challenging literary texts for students with weak literacy is to build their bank of knowledge. Therefore we have selected a range of non-fiction texts that explore a myriad of myths. We will have students undertake lots of non-fiction reading: skimming, scanning and summarising for nuggets of useful knowledge and marvellous monsters. We want to supplement this by exploring the geographical context of Denmark, Anglo-Saxon warriors and the life and times of Beowulf’s brethren. There will be lots of drawing and display making to help visualise this crucial knowledge. We can tease out the complexities of the subject specific language step by step. We will do all this before they even read the book, removing the barriers to their understanding so that they can revel in the gruesome story.
The second part of the term will focus around the excellent modern novel, ‘The Shadow of the Minotaur‘ by Alan Gibbons, in conjunction with the enduring legend of Homer’s ‘Odyssey‘. Gibbons’ modern adaptation of the Perseus Minotaur myth is a skilful modern reworking of the classic myth (with the best opening chapter in children’s fiction). It is an apt marrying of the classic and the modern.
Of course, there are many films, like the animated fantasy of ‘Beowolf’, to the Percy Jackson films and ‘Wrath of the Titans’, that fit well with the reading to help bolster their understanding, building their prior knowledge and help them to visualise the challenging language. By tapping into the contemporary culture our students do understand – their ‘de facto canon‘ – we can leverage a passion for classic poetry, modern prose and more. With purposeful pedagogy, there are many ways in which you can enrich writing and elicit complex discussion and stimulate further reading from ‘reading‘ contemporary film.
The unit will build up to a narrative writing outcome. They will perform a story along the way, in the great oral tradition (sans harp!). It will synthesise the language they have analysed in the texts and and it will be an opportunity to craft and draft a piece of writing they are truly proud of in our classroom and beyond. The romantic in me has them reading their story to their parents by the fireside at Christmas like a true ‘Scop‘ (a travelling Anglo-Saxon story-teller and poet)!
In my experience of teaching students with weak literacy, developing strong learning habits is essential. Therefore we will both look to build weekly teaching and learning habits and routines, such as ending each week with a review of their weekly learning – giving some spaced repetition to the core knowledge we want them to remember. Repetition really is the golden rule. Rather than being some deadening routine, instead it builds consistency, confidence and helps forge a growing sense of themselves as readers and writers.
Each lesson will begin with a revisiting of the last, followed by dictionary and thesaurus games. So much of their literacy issues stem from a sheer dearth of vocabulary. We will exploit every chance we get to bolster their armoury of words. So much of the myths we will read provide the opportunity to explore the fascinating etymology of our complex language. Again, we shouldn’t shy away from such complexity, but instead, we should take on the challenge.
Ultimately, we want to make connections. Connecting the stories that they know with the touchstones of literary history: connecting the literary canon with their de facto canon. Connecting words and images; non-fiction and fiction; reading and writing. Ultimately, that is what great stories do. We should only connect the prose and their passion and both will be exalted.