This is the sad truth about literature teaching in all the schools I visit. I think a major part of the problem is that Creative writing PD is delivered, if ever, by literacy experts, rather than those involved in authentic writing. It is delivered from an “educational” perspective rather than a literary pooint of view, aware of contemprary trends. You should see the “descriptive writing marking matrixes” we use. I honestly believe what I was taught at school has been the major obstacle to my successful literary career.
Some years ago, during my first parent-teacher night as a high school teacher, the father of one of my students cheerfully told me that he thought it was a shame corporal punishment had been abolished. ‘They used to give me the strap all the time,’ he said. ‘It never done me no harm.’ Quite apart from the fact that being thrashed on a regular basis clearly hadn’t managed to improve his grammar skills, I was appalled by this statement. It was, I felt, right up there with that classic question: ‘Don’t they teach you anything in school these days?’
A decade and a half later, I’ve decided that people are taught lots of great things in school. But some of them may not be helpful if you plan to become a novelist. No, no – I don’t mean how to calculate the angles of a rhombus, or what the principal…
I finally got a chance to see The Hunger Games, and it was BRILLIANT, but I’m sure you already know that. If I didn’t have so much uni work to catch up on I would have gone back to watch the next viewing. Apart from the fantastic storyline (not entirely original see: http://youtu.be/oEI5ccR6JtA, but made excellent use of universal themes), the fantabulous costumes and sets (Lush! I wanna live in the Capital) and the fantastic direction by Gary Ross, it was the acting that really made this movie special. Of course I can’t go past Jennifer Lawrence who is spectacular as Katniss Everdeen, but I also have to mention former Natural Born Killer Woody Harrelson, who was completely perfect in the role of Haymitch, the drunken mentor to Katniss and Peter.
As for the Harry Potter movies, the makers of The Hunger Games have very cleverly conveyed so much of the meaning through the costumes, sets and homage to a particular bygone era. If I was planning to “reap” the experience by analysing it in class I would recommend exploring the implied meaning through researching anything and everything about the 1920s/30s for The Hunger Games and the 1930s/40s for Harry Potter.
I’m learning about information literacy and Project Based Learning at the moment, which involves students creating their own questions and sharing their findings with the rest of the class. If you teach kids you know they listen to their peers more than any adult in their life, so it makes sense to do it this way.
How exciting to know there is a young female in a film adaptation of a YA phenomenem that can actually manage to convey an emotional range beyond that of a popcile. I know I have defended Twilight on this blog before, but watching The Hunger Games showed that tosh for just what it is, mindless, silly escapism. Now that I have seen The Hunger Games, the thought of going back and watching the last Twilight movie seems a bit of a chore. Ho hum, at least there is only one to go.
I am currently reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and I am finding it really hard going. When I downloaded it a couple of weeks ago I was sure the biggest challenge would be wrestling with the eReader, but I really am struggling with the language, and it’s making me appreciate how hard persevering is for our emerging readers. I know the story – having read it as a set text in my Advanced English class in high school, but even then I found it quite hard to access. I remember my classmates being really excited when the teacher announced that we’d be studying it. For some reason it had never been mentioned in my household. I come from an Anglo, university educated, literature loving family and if we’d studied Tolkien or Steinbeck that year I’m sure I would have had an easier time of it.
My just turned 4-year-old daughter thinks she’s a big Harry Potter fan, though I’d like to point out she has never seen any of the movies. She’s seen the ads, looked at the covers of books and listened when myself and the older cousins discuss which spell we’d choose if we only got one, and I can just imagine how she’ll react when she’s finally allowed to read the books and watch the movies herself. In a sense she is already immersed in the world of Harry Potter and if she’s ever lucky enough to read it as a set text I’m sure she’ll be able to consider it on many levels.
But consider the child who has never heard of the text you’re exploring. Consider the child who has not grown up in a world where magic and dragons are taken for granted, for whom hours of repetitive drill and practise style studying is the norm rather than imaginative play in green cloaks. For these children it can seem quite odd to read a book for “pleasure”. They can be so interested in getting the answer right, as I was age 17 (not sarcastic, I was actually a TOTAL nerd), that it can take all the enjoyment out of the activity. Which is a real shame because now and then I understand enough of the language to think Jane Austin was writing for our pleasure.
I am torn between thinking maybe I was just not mature enough to understand the themes when I first read Austin, but then I think how wonderful it would have been for me to connect with Eliza Bennet all those years ago. I can really relate to Merike Hardy’s comment that it must have been groundbreaking in its day. And even now I can relate to Mrs Bennet and her concern for her daughters at the prospect of being left homeless and penniless unless well-wed.
So what can we do to make our set texts more accessible?
Remember that our students do come from a culture, even if it’s different to our own. Listen and learn from them, and hope to show a connection between a universal theme of the text and something that is relevant to them.
Present the story in various ways. Romeo and Juliet for example has an excellent soundtrack in the form of the Baz Luhrmann film. Have the students listen to songs which relate to the scenes in the story and discuss the emotions.
Before reading, pose certain questions in everyday language. How would your mum feel if she had 5 daughters, no money and the only hope for their future was to marry a man with money? How would you feel if everyone in your family expect you to take up the same career as they did, but you really wanted to try something completely different? I think the girls of today would pretty much feel the same way as Lizzie.
Let children read a summary, or watch the film before reading. Lots of teachers think this is spoiling it, but this is not so. Let’s take the example of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings again. Many of us do not realise how exposed we already were the story before we ever picked up the book and read it for ourselves. To even up the playing field it is only sensible to allow all the children to get a sense of what makes the story great before digging in and analysing it deeply.
Use Fan-Fiction or fan made videos on You-Tube. I recently went to see One Man Lord of The Rings. The great thing about fan-created work is that they are all about interpretation, they are often more accessible and can be a lot of fun.
Artifact Boxes are a great interactive strategy that you can use to engage your students. Basically you collect a whole lot of artifacts that are related to a particular book, and put them in a box. Simple, right. This takes quite while and I’ve just started my collection so it’s not nearly as impressive as some I’ve seen. Perhaps TL or teacher networks could get together and share their collections to ease the burden of collecting and storing them.
Bring out the artifacts and let the kids have a play with them when you are introducing a new book. Let them have a think about how the artifacts will pop up in the story – just like you predict from the cover.
You can do writing activities in which students must justify which artifact is the most important in the story, or for the younger kids even describe one and the rest of the class has to guess which object/artifact they’re talking about.
It’s also fun to get together a totally random set of artifacts and have the kids create their own stories based on all or a few of the things in the box.
Here are a couple of sets I have started. See if you can guess which book each are from before you mouse over the picture. All are already mentioned on this blog.
If you’re a teacher, strugging to find poems to use with your students – stop looking! I have provided you with the answer. British poet Benjamin Zephaniah brings words to life on the page the way slamers do it on the stage.