Don’t Blame Boo Radley

To Kill a Mockingbird. Other great books are available.

To Kill a Mockingbird. Other great books are available.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a great book. It is one of many great books, and it happens to be written by an American. It is one of many great books written in the English language, and it happens to be written by an American, and it happens to be written by a woman. You see, great books are written in many languages, by writers male and female, of many nationalities. One of the key roles of teachers is to introduce young people to great books, at the appropriate times, and in accordance with their developing love of reading and awareness of the world. By now, I hope, you are all nodding in agreement.

So when an English Education Secretary says that young people are not reading enough, that they are not reading difficult enough books, and that he wants to make sure that they are reading ‘a wide range of texts’, what is there to disagree with? Well quite a lot , actually. Michael Gove’s announced changes to the literature requirement for GCSE English caused more than a little anger this week, with media channels, writers, bloggers and commentators rushing to proclaim that he had ‘banned’ American literature from English schools, including one or two which had become classroom staples for recent generations. (see To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men axed as Gove Orders More Brit Lit).

In reality, what he had actually done was to set out a minimum requirement for anyone studying GCSE Literature  – a Shakespeare play; poetry from 1789, including the Romantics; a 19th-century novel; and some fiction or drama written in the British Isles since 1914, to be precise. Besides believing that this would provide a much-needed injection of his favourite ingredient, ‘rigour’,  he further defended the changes by adding, “Beyond this, exam boards have the freedom to design specifications so that they are stretching and interesting (sic), and include any number of other texts from which teachers can then choose” and that teachers had welcomed a “specification that allows for Keats and Heaney, Shakespeare and Miller, the Brontes and Pinter.” (see Michael Gove Attacks ‘Fictitious’ Claims He Has Banned US Books From School).

The telling word in this statement is ‘allows’. Of course, the syllabus ‘allows’ for the reading and study of any other works of literature, but TIME doesn’t. In reality, overstretched teachers will stick to the texts which are guaranteed to come up in the exam, because they will ultimately be judged by their students’ results. I have written before about this effect (see Of Mice and Flies: Death by Examination), and how it leads to the demise of reading rather than its further development. Reading for pleasure and enlightenment gives way to learning how to write ‘critical’ essays and preparing for the test. Not that we in Scotland have anything to be complacent about here. Admittedly there are fewer restrictions on the choice of texts which young people can use in response to exam questions (see National 5 English Course Assessment Specifications) , but the introduction of a compulsory Scottish text in national courses recently was a mistake, and I say that as someone with a deep regard for Scottish culture and who has read, taught and enjoyed a considerable number of Scottish texts, both fiction and non-fiction. If this is indeed social engineering, as some would claim, then the fact that we are not quite in the Govean league of social engineering is nothing really to be proud of.

You see, there are two important principles at stake here. The first is that it is not the role of politicians to determine what young people read. If it was then we may as well make teachers redundant, send reading lists home to parents and their

Gregory Peck and Mary Badham in the film adaptation of Harper Lee's classic novel.

Gregory Peck and Mary Badham in the film adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel.

kids, and let them get on with it. If Michael Gove had really wanted young people to read more widely, then what he should have done was to remove the specified texts completely from the exam requirements, then teachers (and students) would truly have to argue the merits of their chosen texts. Nor should it be the role of examination boards to determine what young people read. As I said earlier, that belongs to the trained professional, the teacher. And that is the second important principle.

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Postscript: Michael Gove’s announcement had two immediate effects. Three of the four main examining bodies in England immediately removed the aforementioned American authors from their list of specified texts, and sales of To Kill a Mockingbird from Amazon increased significantly.

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Letter To An Unknown Soldier

The Unknown Soldier at Paddington Station. Photo by Dom Agius.

The Unknown Soldier at Paddington Station. Photo by Dom Agius.

This summer a new kind of war memorial will be made by people from all over the UK. ‘Letter To An Unknown Soldier’ is a project commissioned by 14-18 NOW – a nationwide cultural programme designed to mark the centenary of World War One – and inspired by the statue which stands on Platform 1 of Paddington Station in London. Representing the millions of soldiers who died in that terrible conflict, the statue depicts an ordinary soldier, in battle dress, reading a letter. The project organisers want YOU, and your students, to contribute to the memorial by writing that letter. Every letter received will be published online, alongside some which have been written already by distinguished writers such as Malorie Blackman, David Almond, Andrew Motion, Val McDermid, Melvin Burgess, Owen Sheers, Liz Lochhead and Sita Brahmachari.

The project is lead by writer and theatre director Neil Bartlett, and Canadian author Kate Pullinger, who were keen to come up with something truly original:-

“For us, the creators of the project, it is important to move away from the usual imagery associated with war and commemoration – cenotaphs, poppies, the silence that falls over us all on Remembrance Day. What we’d like instead is to hear what you think – what you really think. If you were able to speak to the unknown soldier now, with all we’ve learned since 1914, with all your experience of life and death to hand, what would you say? We are especially keen to hear the voices of what young people think and we very much hope that schools will embrace the project across the curriculum.”

It is very easy for schools to take part in the project, and some very clear lesson plans have been created for use in a number of curriculum areas such as English, history, citizenship, creative

Surviving letters from 'The Great War'

Surviving letters from The Great War

writing and drama. These are designed to provide teachers with a context in which they can encourage young people to reflect on such an important part of their history, and to contribute their own short piece of creative writing towards a national collection. Having their work published online, in the company of established writers and poets, provides students with an added incentive, All letters received will eventually be housed as a national archive in the British Library for the benefit of future generations.

Letters can be written online, or they can be written, scanned and uploaded. Alternatively, they can be performed to camera and submitted online, or written in the conventional manner and posted to the organisers, any time between now and the

deadline of 4th August (the date of the declaration of war in 1914). Letters will be published from 28th June and will be fully searchable by name, theme, geographical region or age group.

The face of The Unknown Soldier. Image by Dom Agius.

The face of The Unknown Soldier. Image by Dom Agius.

Organisers are also keen that schools which intend to participate should contact them via unknownsoldier@1418NOW.org.uk and tell them how they are planning to take the project forward.

 

For more information, and to download the age-appropriate lesson packs, visit the 14-18 NOW website at http://www.1418NOW.org.uk/letter. You will find the classroom resources under the ‘MORE’ section.

 

Twitter: @letter1418

Facebook:www.facebook.com/letter1418

End Of An Era

teacherWell, I’ve gone and done it. As of today, I am officially an ‘ex-teacher’. I decided to cancel my registration to the GTCS (General Teaching Council Scotland) since I hadn’t actually taught in a school for the best part of the last decade. After a few years with Learning and Teaching Scotland (now Education Scotland) I have been working independently, while holding on to my teaching registration ‘in case of emergency’ as it were. Realistically, I am never going to teach kids again, but I intend to work with and support teachers for a good few years to come, so don’t dare use the ‘R’ word in my company if you don’t mind. It’s such an old-fashioned concept these days.

To mark this momentous occasion I received two letters from the GTCS in the post today. Unfortunately neither contained the gold watch I jokingly referred to when I spoke to the young woman on the other end of the phone on Wednesday. However, I did appreciate the sentiment contained in the first of them.

“Dear Mr Boyd,

On behalf of the GTCS, I would like to thank you for the time you have given to the teaching profession in Scotland. One of our aims is to ensure the highest standard of teaching and learning in our schools. Your commitment has helped make this possible and has no doubt contributed significantly to improving the prospects and opportunities for the young people whom you have taught.”

Over the course of more than thirty years in the classroom I would like to think there is some truth in this, and the thing which gives me most satisfaction is the number of ex-pupils I meet frequently around my home town who want to reminisce about ‘the time you……….’ etc etc. Not once, after all that time, has any of these conversations been other than positive, funny or heart-felt.

The other letter, in case you were still wondering, began as follows.

“Dear Mr Boyd,

I am writing to inform you that your annual registration fee of £50 is due for payment. As we have Direct Debit instructions held on your record, the payment will be deducted on or around 27th May 2014. If the payment is successful, your record will be automatically updated to show that the registration fee has been paid. If for any reason the direct Debit is not successful, we will write out to provide you with alterblamenative payment methods.”

It would be easy to sink into a slough of depression at this point, and to conclude that one is indeed only a number in an over-bureaucratic system, but that would be to exaggerate greatly the case. There is no other profession which comes close to that of the teacher.It is indeed an honour and a privilege, and the greatest rewards don’t come in the form of gold watches but in the appreciation from those who matter most.