The power of words

TES (Times Education Supplement) - - CONTENTS -

How teach­ing world lit­er­a­ture could help make so­ci­ety more tol­er­ant

Lit­er­a­ture can pro­vide a per­fect op­por­tu­nity to in­tro­duce stu­dents to other cul­tures. But world lit­er­a­ture is not spec­i­fied as part of the GCSE cur­ricu­lum. Erin Miller gives some tips on mak­ing sure your stu­dents’ read­ing list isn’t too mono­cul­tural

You don’t have to spend long on so­cial me­dia (I usu­ally give it three or four min­utes, and try not to fol­low the per­pe­tra­tors) be­fore you find your­self faced with ab­ject, loud, shame­less hate and in­tol­er­ance. And it is very likely that th­ese voices speak louder than some of the more thought­ful and bal­anced mes­sages that stu­dents hear from their teach­ers.

This got me think­ing: at a time when it is more vi­tal than ever to teach ac­cep­tance, the na­tional cur­ricu­lum for English teach­ing is not do­ing enough to pro­mote cul­tural and re­li­gious di­ver­sity in its text re­quire­ments. So what should we do about it?

Here’s a snap­shot of how texts from other cul­tures are cur­rently em­bed­ded in the na­tional cur­ricu­lum for English teach­ing across the phases.

At key stage 2, it is men­tioned that chil­dren should be read­ing “books from other cul­tures and tra­di­tions”. Good.

At KS3, there is a re­quire­ment for stu­dents to read “sem­i­nal world lit­er­a­ture”. The word “sem­i­nal” here is a teensy bit prob­lem­atic. Does a text have to have been in­flu­en­tial in the de­vel­op­ment of a genre to be worth study­ing? Also, it is a lit­tle un­clear as to vol­ume re­quired here: is it one text per year? Per key stage?

Any­way, I’ve been build­ing you up to the real shocker: there is not one, not even a

sin­gle, measly plat­i­tudi­nous bul­let point that de­mands the teach­ing of any text that is from a cul­ture other than Bri­tish at KS4.

Why is this a prob­lem? Nar­ra­tives about the ex­ist­ing and wide­spread prob­lems re­lat­ing to struc­tural racism are so cul­tur­ally em­bed­ded that our stu­dents some­times fail to no­tice them. Or worse, they fail to pro­duce an emo­tional re­sponse that is ap­pro­pri­ate for, or be­fit­ting of, the sick­en­ing treat­ment of re­pressed cul­tures that is hap­pen­ing right now around the globe.

Emo­tional en­gage­ment

I’d ar­gue this hap­pens be­cause of a lack of emo­tional con­nec­tion. Emo­tional con­nec­tions are cre­ated through raw and hon­est en­gage­ment with a per­son or a prob­lem. I think I would be a dif­fer­ent per­son if I hadn’t read Alice Walker, Ta-ne­hisi Coates, Jung Chang, Toni Morrison, Hyeon­seo Lee, and so many more won­der­ful con­tem­po­rary and his­tor­i­cal writ­ers. I might not re­mem­ber that par­tic­u­lar English les­son on a Fri­day af­ter­noon, but

I will re­mem­ber Celie and Pecola for­ever.

Lit­er­a­ture is per­haps the best way to en­cour­age stu­dents to emo­tion­ally en­gage with global is­sues; and we want our chil­dren to grow up to change the world, don’t we? It is the moral re­spon­si­bil­ity of a gov­ern­ment to ed­u­cate young peo­ple with an aim to tem­per ig­no­rance and prej­u­dice with com­pas­sion and sen­si­tiv­ity.

So, trapped in a cur­ricu­lum that does not em­body the di­verse cul­ture and na­tion that we claim to be, how do we en­sure that our chil­dren are be­ing ex­posed to texts from around the world, and texts that rep­re­sent a range of cul­tures and re­li­gions? How do we make sure that we are us­ing lit­er­a­ture as a tool to help beat in­ter­nalised racism, Is­lam­o­pho­bia, and other en­trenched neg­a­tive at­ti­tudes to­wards dif­fer­ent cul­tures?

I’ve worked in the in­ter­na­tional sec­tor, and one of the key dif­fer­ences be­tween UK and in­ter­na­tional schools is the em­pha­sis placed upon be­com­ing a global cit­i­zen. Cur­ric­ula in in­ter­na­tional schools ac­tively re­quire stu­dents to prove that they have been demon­strat­ing the be­hav­iour of a global cit­i­zen, and of­ten pre­scribed texts act as a plat­form for think­ing about, and en­gag­ing with, other cul­tures. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, in­ter­na­tional schools are al­ready at an ad­van­tage ow­ing to the di­verse in­take of pupils; some­thing from which many schools in the UK do not ben­e­fit.

In the afore­men­tioned in­ter­na­tional cur­ric­ula, the bal­ance be­tween Western texts and texts from other cul­tures is far more palat­able. Ad­di­tion­ally, the IB pro­gramme pre­scribes trans­lated texts, in­di­cat­ing re­spect to­wards writ­ers from coun­tries other than Bri­tain.

Be­yond Bri­tain

In the UK, there is no ques­tion that teach­ers model moral at­ti­tudes and tol­er­ance. De­spite this, what mes­sages about the value of other cul­tures are be­ing tac­itly com­mu­ni­cated through a two-year study pro­gramme of English where any lit­er­ary en­deav­ours be­yond Bri­tain are ig­nored?

Ask­ing around, I see that the re­quire­ment for “sem­i­nal world lit­er­a­ture” is of­ten be­ing sat­is­fied through teach­ing Of Mice and Men or An­i­mal Farm. Ex­cel­lent text choices, no ques­tion. How­ever, they are still rep­re­sent­ing the West and Western ideas. Sure, we can look to the mis­treat­ment of Crooks in Of Mice and Men to foster dis­cus­sions about the re­pug­nant treat­ment of African Amer­i­cans, and those are dis­cus­sions that must take place, but that doesn’t help us to un­der­stand African cul­ture, does it? It’s not a cel­e­bra­tion or in­sight into a cul­tur­ally and his­tor­i­cally rich con­ti­nent, is it? In short, it’s not enough.

Adding to this, we need to ask our­selves: if the text fea­tures other cul­tures, but was pro­duced or writ­ten by an au­thor in Bri­tain, can that al­ways qual­ify it as a “text from an­other cul­ture”? It seems that the pur­pose of this slip­pery bul­let point in the na­tional cur­ricu­lum is func­tion­ing to ex­pand upon pos­si­ble Euro­cen­tric/western at­ti­tudes. I think we need to be more ad­ven­tur­ous, and get out of our text com­fort zones.

Here are a few ideas for how schools and their English de­part­ments can beat the re­stric­tions of the na­tional cur­ricu­lum by giv­ing stu­dents a sense of other cul­tures and re­li­gions through read­ing:

Give English teach­ers the time to read and dis­cuss the most valu­able texts from other cul­tures to teach. Teach­ers need to be emo­tion­ally en­gaged be­fore we can hope to en­gage our stu­dents.

Com­pile read­ing lists ded­i­cated to books and po­ems from other cul­tures.

Each year, make time for a unit that in­cludes texts from other cul­tures.

En­sure non-fic­tion texts re­lated to global is­sues form part of un­seen prac­tice. This is a use­ful way to keep en­gag­ing stu­dents at GCSE, when no lit­er­a­ture is pre­scribed. Pro­mote projects such as “a book from my/ this cor­ner of the world”, where stu­dents cel­e­brate a book from a place that they have a con­nec­tion to, or have re­searched. Bring in guest speak­ers. See who is avail­able to talk to your stu­dents about their ex­pe­ri­ences of other cul­tures.

Take cross-cur­ric­u­lar ap­proaches. For ex­am­ple, if Nige­ria is be­ing stud­ied in ge­og­ra­phy, could you sup­ple­ment stu­dents’ knowl­edge by em­bed­ding some Nige­rian lit­er­a­ture, art or poetry? Find pro­grammes where stu­dents have the op­por­tu­nity to Skype chil­dren from other schools around the world, to learn more about their cul­ture. This can be very pow­er­ful.

In­clud­ing lit­er­a­ture that chal­lenges per­cep­tions and gives stu­dents knowl­edge of the world be­yond their im­me­di­ate en­vi­ron­ment is cru­cial. It gives schools a way to ful­fil the na­tional cur­ricu­lum’s pur­pose of “moral and cul­tural de­vel­op­ment” and, per­haps most im­por­tantly, con­trib­utes to a fu­ture where so­ci­ety – maybe even the in­ter­net – is a more tol­er­ant place.

Erin Miller is a sec­ondary English teacher, cur­rently teach­ing at an in­ter­na­tional school

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