Diversifying The English Curriculum Without Changing Your Texts

By David Lowbridge-Ellis MBE

 

English teachers are often some of a school’s most enthusiastic champions of diversity. After all, we don’t just teach our children how to read and write, do we? Anyone who teaches literature knows they are also a teacher of empathy.

But how often do you find yourself looking in the department stock cupboard and thinking ‘we don’t have the right texts’? And with budgets what they are, the chances of getting new ones may be slim at best.

I hear this particularly from teachers who want to teach more about LGBTQ+ but feel they don’t have the resources. Well the good news is, you probably have what you need already.

Try typing ‘NAME OF TEXT YOU’RE TEACHING’ alongside ‘LGBTQ’ or ‘queer’ into Google and prepare to be delighted.

Your searches will show you that most texts could be placed into at least one of the following three categories:

  • Texts written by LGBTQ+ authors
  • Texts written about LGBTQ+ characters
  • Texts not explicitly featuring LGBTQ+ characters but open to ‘queer readings’.

Depending on how progressive your degree course was, you may or may not have heard the term ‘queer reading’ before. I remember the term ‘queer’ being used by the people who bullied me at school in the late 80s and into the 1990s. Little did I know back then, but the term was starting to be reclaimed and used in universities. Scholars like Alexander Doty, started to argue that any text could be seen as queer. A queer piece of literature (or film, video game, whatever) is anything that challenges heteronormativity: the pervasive idea that the only ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ relationships are between one man and one woman – both performing rigidly prescribed gender roles – for the purposes of procreation.

Queer texts present alternative possibilities to traditional narratives – you can’t be what you can’t see – helping people live more authentic, happy lives. Even students who aren’t LGBTQ+ will be going into a world where they need to respect, tolerate (and hopefully celebrate) people who are different to themselves.

Many of the most popular text choices at GCSE lend themselves very well to reappraisal through LGBTQ+ lenses, especially Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Frankenstein, The Woman In Black, Boys Don’t Cry, Jane Eyre, Journey’s End and Lord of the Flies. And it just so happens that, while all of Shakespeare’s plays are wide-open for LGBTQ+ analysis, the six selected for GCSE are especially so (Macbeth, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice). When the world’s preeminent living Shakespeare scholar, Stanley Wells, says there’s no doubt in his mind that Shakespeare himself was – to use the modern term – bisexual, saying otherwise is surely protesting too much.

In addition to the novels and plays we teach for GCSE, poetry offers a treasure trove of diverse perspectives where you will find ample opportunities to teach many aspects of diversity, including LGBTQ+.

Before we get stuck in: Although queer identities – such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans – are relatively recent ways of codifying human experience, queer people have always existed. It’s frustratingly commonplace for queer history to be erased. While we do need to be careful about ‘outing’ people who never self-identified as queer – either because the terms didn’t exist or their lives or reputations would have been at risk if they did use them – we also owe it to our pupils by not shutting down possibilities. When the evidence points to two people of the same sex being more than friends, we shouldn’t close down the possibility that they were in a romantic or sexual relationship. The best response, if a pupil asks us ‘was this poet lesbian/gay/bisexual/trans?’, is ‘maybe’.

Let’s kick things off with Carol Ann Duffy’s classic Valentine (‘I give you an onion…’). It’s worth exploring with pupils whether knowing Duffy is a lesbian makes us read the poem differently. Whether it does or not, we should teach pupils not to assume that love poems written by women are always intended for men, and vice versa.

Look at works by the widely-held-to-be-bisexual (or even pansexual) Lord Byron. Does the meaning of She Walks In Beauty shift if we just swap the female pronouns (she/her) with the male (he/his) or non-binary (they/their) equivalents? Because of its rhythm, Byron’s The Destruction of Sennacharib is often compared with another poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade. It comes as a surprise to many to learn that many modern scholars consider Tennyson to be queer, and there is plenty of evidence in his ouevre, including a 90-page homoerotic eulogy for Arthur Henry Hallam, his ‘best friend’ (probably more than just friends).

Studying almost any war poem provides an opportunity to tease apart what we mean by ‘masculinity’ and its stereotypes, regardless of the poet’s gender or sexual orientation. But it’s surely no accident that most of the best poems written about World War I were written by queer soldiers. Perhaps being social outsiders meant they were better able to stand back and cut through the jingoism. Exposure is Wilfred Owen at his best; a brutal evocation of a hell made bearable by a common bond between him and his men. The tragedy, of course, is that Owen himself was killed just before Armistice was declared, while bravely leading an assault on a German-held stronghold. The lesson here? The terms ‘gay’ and ‘war hero’ are not incompatible.

Rossetti’s Cousin Kate gains additional resonances when you consider Rossetti is now widely hailed as a queer poet. When her brother was editing together her poems after her death, he destroyed the more explicit ones addressed to women. Nevertheless, many of her most famous poems are very homoerotic and there are elements of this in Cousin Kate if you read between the lines (something we English teachers always encourage our pupils to do!).

Asking a bunch of teenagers to let their imaginations run wild, reading between the lines of Emily Dickinson’s I started Early – Took my Dog is a sure-fire way to enliven a Friday afternoon! Tread carefully around the sexualised imagery – ‘my shoes would overflow with Pearl’ (the mind boggles!). Other poems by queer writers include First Flight by the lesbian U.A. Fanthorpe and Nothing’s Changed by Tatamkhulu Afrika, a writer whose queerness deepened his insights into discrimination.

This is just the beginning of course. Once you start looking at texts through LGBTQ+ lenses, or race, ethnicity or religious belief, it’s hard to stop!

 

David Lowbridge-Ellis MBE is Director of School Improvement for Matrix Academy Trust. David writes and speaks extensively on the ins and outs of designing and implementing more diverse curricula.

Listen to David speak further on this topic as part of Pearson’s Let’s Talk English video series – a range of short videos where English practitioners, sector leaders and influencers share their views and top tips on what we can collectively do to spark engagement in English classrooms across the UK. You can watch the series at: tinyurl.com/4t7y8fwy

 

 

 

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