Monday, August 22, 2022

Creating a Diverse Curriculum for GCSE English – Core Texts

If you ask any English teacher, they will probably say that yes, they do want to expose their learners to as diverse a selection of writers as possible. They may well probably add that it’s easier said than done. Here are some of my thoughts on the process.

One of the things that we are striving to do here at Pass GCSE English (and in my day job as an English teacher) is to expose learners to a diverse array of voices – and we like to think we are succeeding. It might be considered as “decolonizing the curriculum” but this post is more about the process than the politics (my thoughts on that will be in a forthcoming post). 

We decided early on that in order to avoid any potential copyright issues we would restrict ourselves to writers whose work is already in the public domain. Living writers tend not to do that (although we have found some) and so when considering texts to include it was and is important to first consider the year in which the writer slipped off their mortal coil. In the UK, work goes into the public domain 70 years after the death of the author. So, as it’s 2022, the work of writers who died before 1952 is “good to go”. We felt that this was important to avoid potential legal issues but also to prove a point or two. First, that English teachers don't have to make any of those furtive visits to the photocopier and hurriedly reproduce someone else's work, eyes down and with that transparently guilty look on their faces; secondly, that "old" texts can be just as exciting and interesting - and relevant - as something written by a living author.

That is, of course, the issue - providing learners with interesting texts - texts that will engage them, promote thinking, have some degree (at least) of relevancy to their own experiences and the issues they face. I teach in inner London and so I want to expose my learners to writers who also looked like them, with names like theirs and cultures like theirs – by no means precluding either white students or writers but reviewing the staple voices of the past. I also don’t want to have a sea of glazed eyes and slack jaws in front of me when I finish reading a text out to a class. I want to take my learners on a journey and so I had to undertake one myself.

What is an interesting text? I think most experienced English teachers can read one and think "yeah" or “nah” – there is an instinct that kicks in when the learners won’t get or like or respond positively in any way, shape, or form to a text, that it will turn them off and reduce them to that quiet state between being bitten and turning into a zombie. I teach mostly boys and they engage best with texts that include murder, mayhem, and general chaos (usually caused by those belonging to their own gender), so I have to factor that in where possible too. While I do partly agree that something that is good for you doesn’t necessarily have to taste nice, it’s a bonus if it does. As Lorelei Lee (played by Marilyn Monroe) says in Gentlemen Prefer Blonds – “Don't you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn't marry a girl just because she's pretty, but my goodness, doesn't it help?” You get my drift.

All of the above means, inevitably, one thing – research. A curriculum can't be fully developed without it. When I began to fully engage with the process of discovering “new” writers I didn’t realise that it would become an extended, ongoing project – I really thought it would simply be a case of finding some names, googling them, and gently harvesting extracts of their works to use as new “texts” inside the classroom. Sweat free, easy. I hadn’t factored in just how Eurocentric the English language internet is (I hadn’t even realised it was, frankly - there's an admission) or how stifled diverse voices had been in the decades before 1950. I knew very early on that I had cut out some work for myself.

The parameters I set myself were compounded by another matter. Any text I selected had to cover one (preferably more) of the assessment objectives to be covered when delivering the curriculum in order to prepare my learners for their exams. The GCSE English exams are structured so that makes it sometimes difficult to find appropriate texts. For example, Paper 1, Question 1 asks students to list four things about something or someone in the first few lines of a text – so if we are going to use a text in a “past paper” kind of way, then it has to start in a certain way to accommodate Question 1. You would be surprised how many texts don’t behave themselves for a poor beleaguered English teacher…

Likewise Paper 1 Question 2 – which asks candidates to read a paragraph or two, always situated towards the beginning of the text, and write about the language the writer uses to describe someone or something. So, again, the text must incorporate a descriptive paragraph early on in order to make Question 2 a viable proposition. Again, misbehaving texts are everywhere. This usually “sorts” Question 3 to an extent because it is about structure and if the text enables Questions 1 and 2 to be formulated then there is already usually structure in place which can be commented on by candidates. However, the question refers to a whole of a text so there must be enough structural devices used by the writer throughout the text to enable candidates to choose them to comment upon – so again, picking the “right” text can be difficult. Misbehaving texts yet again!

…And don’t even start me on Question 4!

Of course, then there is Paper 2 which has two texts from different eras. Candidates have to compare various elements of them in two of the questions (2 and 4) including the attitude of the writers. Discover two texts that “behave” in this case, and you’ve found the needle in the haystack. If you ever (as a teacher or student) open a past paper – or the real exam – and roll your eyes at the subjects chosen and the texts used, spare a thought for those people at the exam board who had to source them. It’s not as easy a task as one might imagine; finding texts that cover all the questions and allow successful candidate responses are very, very difficult to source.

As a note here, some of the texts are quite extensively edited. Back in June 2017, the text for Paper 1 was The Tiredness of Rosabel by Katherine Mansfield. It was from the beginning of the story, so I decided to find and read the rest of it. I was very surprised at how much editing had gone on. Although it shortened the text, removing parts of it that were not necessary in the context of the exam, it was very close to shoehorning. Yet it remains one of the better texts which I return to often (one student would sigh and say “Oh, she’s still tired then...” every time we did). At least it didn't feature water in any of its states - which sometimes seems a prerequisite of any AQA exam (particularly Paper 2).

As such, when I have found texts that are 90% appropriate, I have done some editing myself. The excision of sentences is something I hesitate to do but when they might distract or simply are not needed contextually, off they go. It extends sometimes to whole paragraphs. Likewise, some words – if they are so anachronistic as to be words that my students would never use even if they were to learn them or end up sounding like Jacob Rees-Mogg if they did, then I change them to words that are contemporary and more immediately understandable. Then I keep my fingers crossed that my chosen writers aren’t spinning in their graves.

I mentioned google searches earlier and that’s how I started – in an attempt to see what texts English GCSE teachers were already using. I couldn't really in all honesty call that research; it was more of a fishing expedition. It didn’t lead to many “leads”. So, I evolved my searches into broader phrases – “Indian novelists pre-1950” for example. In many instances the road led to Wikipedia – not renowned for its accuracy but very good for lists. Of course, this led to reading about the lives of writers first (time consuming) but was also the point at which I came across the Eurocentricity I have previously mentioned. Once I had selected an author, then finding texts often became the big issue but the one site that has proven my “go to” is Project Gutenberg – a library of over 60,000 ebooks. Even then I am sometimes unable to source texts by writers I have “discovered”. However, it has been invaluable if often problematic.

The problem? I’m the problem. I just can’t help myself. Take William Wells Brown. His novel, Clotelle (1853), is believed to be the first novel written and published by an American of African descent. Instead of skimming and scanning for relevantly structured extracts, I just had to read the whole thing, didn’t I? And what a remarkable slice of Victorian melodrama it turned out to be! However, by reading it in its entirety, I wasn’t exactly focusing fully on the task at hand. Then there is Pu Songling and his enigmatic Tales from a Chinese Studio, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and his remarkable descriptions of Bengali life, Frances Harper’s late-in-life bloom with the novel Iola Leroy – and so many more. Often, I couldn’t source a text that could be used but I had a lot of fun (reading is fun but don't ask the boys I teach if you want that answer) while being generally unsuccessful in my primary task.

Above are some of the writers I did "discover" - click to enlarge.

I think I found texts that fit all the parameters I needed about 25% of the time – if that. However, I have been able to build up a great set of “Core Texts” for Pass GCSE English – the booklet which accompanies the course is now over 50 A4 pages in length and contains over 25,000 beautifully written words by a huge variety of authors – and is ever expanding. The booklet is free with the course and the extracts are used in the lessons, quizzes, and assignments throughout.

The whole endeavour has taken a huge amount of time and has evolved organically over the last two years. It was immensely worthwhile, however – but when I talk about it to colleagues and friends, they often say words to the effect of “you must have too much time on your hands”. While this may or may not be true, depending on how you look at it, I am very happy that I started doing this and will continue to try and discover “hidden” (to me at least) gems that I can use to inspire my learners. So, don’t be afraid of starting something that may take months or years to complete. A whole project does not need to be finished in order for its elements to be used. If you ask me.

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