Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Teaching of Literature

Been teaching this afternoon - not in school, but my private pupil who comes in at 4pm for tuition. I was reflecting on how easy it is for me still to slip back into Standard Grade Critical Essay mode - and also what a long time it took me to arrive at this stage, where everything seems clear, when I know just what to look for in a piece of literature and - just as important - how to communicate that effectively to a tired adolescent.

I had been teaching for several years before I knew, for example, what to do with a short story. Poems were a bit different, because you could spend more time simply decoding them. But what could you do with a story other than read it? Actually, it was my increasing interest in poetry, brought about, I think, by the introduction of Critical Analysis into the Higher Exam, that sharpened my skills in the study of prose. Certainly over the last 15 years of my career I came to believe that if I could show my pupils how a poem worked, so that they could "do it for themselves" with any poem, then they would be better able to tackle any part of the English syllabus at any level. Even Higher Interp. papers became less mysterious when the pupils saw that all these questions were just another facet of the same process. It was one of the most rewarding aspects of the job to see a class wrangling over what the writer was *actually* meaning when he/she wrote something - especially when the class consisted of mixed ability S3 boys with a reputation for trouble-making.

And of course I can now see that blogging would fit into this sort of activity very well, as I proposed in an earlier post. But part of me would miss the buzz of overhearing the voices and the unmistakable and authentic note of enthusiasm for a subject that too often produces groans or indifference.

And a last thought: when I returned to teaching after 8 years of being a full-time Earth Mother, I found the English Department full of brightly-covered paperback anthologies, and far too many poems and extracts that frankly were not worth spending time on - let along the weeks proposed by the new rage for "units". I still think there is a tendency in some quarters to teach pap instead of "real" literature, especially to younger pupils. I don't know how teachers can be bothered - because I don't see how anyone can work up any enthusiasm for second-rate writing. And if the teacher ain't enthusiastic, there's little hope for the weans!

And now - back to the packing .......


  1. Duffy1:27 PM

    Good Point! Remember what I was like when I first came in to your class? However, after studying a mass of poems, analysis all of a sudden became clear.

    You are absolutley right- the things that are being taught now in English are absolute Garbage. My little cousin, in third year, showed me a poem he was studying and it is like something you would read at a Glasgow underground station. Mind you, after he told me who his teacher was, it all became clear. I'll say no more...

  2. You may be able to teach someone how to say it well
    but you can never teach someone how to say it first

  3. Alas, that was never the job! But don't under-rate the ability to put things well - because that is what the great poets do. For me, half the joy lies in the appreciation of the blending of thought and linguistic skill.
    And Jimmy - you're no slouch when it comes to expressing yourself, so don't bat against it!