TELLING YOUR CURRICULUM’S STORY
‘What has benefitted me has been the story I’ve created that integrates and thus highlights the connectivity of the various components of my English curricula.‘
Essential to a successful curriculum is that topics appear to be interconnected, with multiple cross-referencing between units of work allowing students multiple pathways to access information. Such a design ultimately not only helps students in having an overall larger picture of the course, and significantly helps the memory of each of the components, but perhaps most importantly, it very much assists in your teaching as you become more conscious of when to link sections of the course as you teach, and how to sequence it.
Here’s how I’ve done it for my every text/element of the Eduqas GCSE English Literature and Language courses.
The courses offer a wonderful web that spans centuries of time. The oldest text is of course Shakespeare. What’s good to know when thinking of Elizabethan context is that the time is dominated by religious conflict, with the heirless Elizabeth I’s court choosing James I (James IV of Scotland) to succeed her primarily because he was Protestant. His continuation of the persecution of Catholics is what led to the Gun Powder Plot, and James’ consequent fear of assassination. In Jacobean times the showing of Macbeth served to illustrate that corrupt ambitions lead to tragic outcomes, but the theme is pertinent still because it can be accessed on a variety of levels: selfishness, greed, lying etc, and thus becomes a central strand of the moral and affective learning in the entire course.
Jumping to the late 1700’s, George III lightened some of the anti-Roman Catholic laws, but Catholics still couldn’t vote in parliament. George is disliked for extending the war in America after the failed prevention of American independence, intransigent in his view that the new state should be made to pay for its disrespectful arrogance of wanting such freedoms. William Blake references this in the poem London: ‘The hapless soldier’s sigh/ Runs in blood down the palace walls.’ Soldiers are disillusioned in being forced to fight for things they don’t believe in. The blood down palace walls is perhaps a signal to Londoners to rise up against such tyranny like those involved in the French Revolution.
Shelley reiterates opposition to George’s warmongering, in the metaphorical Ozymandias, a tale of an arrogant egotistical ruler who proudly expresses his ‘sneer of cold command’, and who doesn’t realise the futility of demanding to be seen as the ‘king of kings’. Shelley’s reference to the bible’s labelling of Jesus is likely the result of exhaustion from the continuous battles between Catholic and Protestant religious factions. Shelley’s solution: become atheist, a stance that had him expelled from Oxford. (Shelley essay here)
Shelley’s, and indeed all of the Romantics insistence that it is really only nature that lasts and therefore warrants our ultimate attention is confirmed when a book of poetry by one of the strongest ‘natural’ poets, Keats, was found on his drowned body in 1822. Wordsworth too could be considered in this vain, with Excerpt from The Prelude adroitly referencing the importance of nature in grounding the developing individual, as well as Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist that similarly uses nature as a cover to examine the human condition, but Shelley was more aligned to the newer Romantics. Keats’ instruction to cherish the moment and to accept the inevitability of death in To Autumn, an admirable feat considering that death and loss dominated his life, is a timely message for students whose culture demands that what is now is irrelevant and that the next best thing must be acquired at any cost. The perpetual message, interminably promoted on social media, that the grass is always greener on the other side is an incredibly damaging one for our students. The message corrupts and distorts into the belief that what is on the surface must be prioritised, and that we must look and act like the unrealistic impressions generated by media.
Byron’s ‘She Walks in Beauty’ is the perfect antidote, affirming the message that real beauty can only be gained by being true to oneself, and by being kind. Interestingly, Byron and Keats purportedly hated each other, but their poetry certainly sings similar tunes. Imtiaz Dharker also helps here too, with Living Space clearly engaging students to think about being grateful for what they have.
Lord Byron’s poem contradicts his reputation for lasciviousness, a reputation gained initially with his scandalous affair with Caroline Lamb, the mother of eventual prime minister William Lamb, Queen Victoria’s first prime minister. It shows us that sometimes you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and a perfect validation for the importance of discussing context in the course: students should always at least try to seek knowledge of context before making decisions about the things they experience in their lives.
The link to the Victorian era is also evident through the works of Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace, the world’s first prominent female mathematician, and essentially the inventor of the algorithm, most certainly one of the world’s most important discoveries. Her links with Darwin, Dickens, Farraday, Babbage and others opens up students’ access to knowledge of the 19th century, an advantage when reading and being asked to comprehend 19thcentury Language exams. It also shows students that history, or in fact anything that isn’t their age, doesn’t equal anachronism: 19thcentury sentence structure and vocabulary may be different, but human experience and emotions are binding, and timeless.
Dicken’s novella exposes a dark and discouraged London still trapped in Blake’s ‘mind forged manacles’, still being swept along by the industrial revolution, with its central protagonist epitomising the impact and consequences of greed on good honest hard working people. Being generous and kind is most certainly the message promoted in A Christmas Carol. It is allegorical, ultimately seeking to change a society that forgets how to behave. Again, the echoed thread of corrupted ambitions leading to pain is evident, but crucially, there is light a the end of the tunnel, with the notion of redemption prevalent, generously given to the scrupulous and hyperbolic Scrooge, providing inspiration for all that despite any current and pressing situation, that happiness is still obtainable: the environment can be improved through education.
The two post-Romantic poems of the Victorian era, both written by women, draw our attention to the struggles of female voice in society. Both poets were forced into reclusion. Elizabeth Barrett because of her speaking out against tyranny (as in Ozymandias, Hawk Roosting, London, Macbeth) imposed by her slave trading father and consequent hypocrisy of the church in its acceptance of it (via large donations), and the American Emily Dickinson because of similar denouncement of hypocritical religious doctrines.
The fate of the women was certainly different, with Barrett eventually finding a way out through love, celebrating her love in Sonnet 43. The poem is probably the most explicitly joyous in the syllabus, its hyperbole definitely understandable and relatable to those students experiencing love possibly for the first time. Dickinson’s fate? Not so celebratory. Her poem exudes tones of acquiescent depression (or an updated understanding). But again, the restrictions of society may be to blame, and again helps students to see that environments are usually to blame, and can and do change. Dickinson may have been in love with her brother’s wife, a relationship that could never come to fruition, but also symbolic of feelings that she likely never understood, or could allow herself to explore. The opportunity for discussion of societal and personal acceptance of relationships is apposite here.
The poem Valentine addresses similar expectations placed on a society. Written by a vocal feminist, Carol Anne Duffy, it explores the traditional conventions of love and slaps them in the face. It facilitates the opening of students’ minds to the idea that what you see is sometimes not what you get, that we shouldn’t base all of our ideals on impossible superficial realities. Cozy Apologia by Rita Dove takes us down that exact path, with her feeling as though she has to defend her relationship with her husband because it doesn’t seem to have all the intensity and passion espoused by films and TV, and now, social media. Yet she miraculously has achieved possibly the most desirable outcome: contentment. It’s a different outcome to those described in Afternoons by Phillip Larkin, who have been ‘pushed to the sides of their own lives’. Like in Valentine, the ideal of marriage is confronted: it has been forgotten about, and replaced by a subservience to domesticity. The cynical yet cautionary poem is written around the time of a more savage portrayal of human nature in Lord of the Flies.
Golding’s assault on the human condition is motivated by his war experiences. His lack of faith in a society capable of functioning without the conditioning of civilisation, metaphorically depicted in the story that sees the boys gradually succumb to the whims of the tyrannical (there’s that word again), is best understood in the context of exploring poems such as Dulce Et Decorum Est, The Manhunt, Mametz Wood, and A Wife in London. All of these poems expose the savageries of war, ranging from the more traditionally explored physical affects, to the more modern understanding of the psychological damage incurred. Students realise that it is little wonder that Golding was so pessimistic, having experienced D-day himself (and being a classroom teacher ;)). It also highlights the view proposed in the ostensibly propagandist poem The Soldier, as debatable. The dystopia offered by Golding serves as a warning, but again reiterates the notion that environment is crucial, with all of the boys having already experienced some conditioning and shaping of their instincts before arriving at the island. The bottom line: the environment can be improved through education.
The multiple themes running through all of the Literature topics present multiple opportunities for students to engage with the texts with interest and develop strong lines of argument when writing essay responses. Knowing the story line of a text and why it was written is imperative for success, and therefore the first port of call in engaging. The development of writing, the ultimate expression of such knowledge in the form of analysis essays, all stems from this, as students are encouraged to piece together arguments exploring a text’s meaning in a sequential, interesting yet logical fashion. The writing of creative stories can be advanced by emulating the way authors already studied develop themes, using characters, sentence structure, and plot, and other stylistic features.
This knowledge gained from such in depth analysis of Literature texts also paves the road for success in unseen comprehension tasks, tasks that dominate the Language course, and the unseen poetry section in the Literature course. The non-fiction reading elements may seem deserving of their own focus, but in reality, I think they are simply comprehension tasks analogous to the dissection and deconstruction of Literature texts, but in a slightly different, but easily understood form. The non-fiction writing component in the Language course requires students to engage in both persuasive and argumentative expositions. Both ask students to be able to place themselves in the shoes of the audience and address their needs, a skill that the Literature course has enhanced through the focus on context. Considering what someone else may be feeling when you are wanting to engage in a conversation with them (polemic argument) is indeed an enormously useful lesson for students to learn; proof that the environment can be improved through education.
The argumentative texts demand an in-depth but logical response to topics presented, something the Literature course has augmented continuously, and persuasive responses rely on students being able to use the technical knowledge also acquired in the Literature course to engage the audience and manipulate and move their thinking round to that of the student. Being able to do this in a logical and calculative manner leads to a general calm assertiveness, and strengthened confidence, and helps students to gain a clearer sense of who they are.
Having such an understanding of how the course is interconnected allows me to continuously draw students’ attention to links between sections in the course, and not just within say, the poetry unit, where comparison is a component. The story of the course also helps me to further consider the sequence I teach the topics in, and provides a new way of considering the benefits of interleaving.
Can you create the story of your curriculum?
I’m Paul Moss. Follow me @edmerger.