In this article I wish to outline two specific strategies that I’ve used personally, both designed to promote a far more conceptually rich approach to the texts we study in English Literature.
It often feels easier to think small than to think big. Small is manageable; it’s graspable. You can hold small in your hand. In English, ‘small’ might be a particular word a student wants to explore, maybe a certain scene or even a character. Small is something to point to, reassuringly diverting attention away from everything else. ‘For the next few moments’, such a gesture implies, ‘I’ll write just about this’.
But while still important, thinking small is never enough on its own. Students need to think big, to release their grasp on the fine details and rise above, seeing not just single words, but the whole edifice of the text. They need their thinking to become expansive and conceptual; a wide-angled lens that takes in an entire vista, not just a single path.There are lots of ways to focus on this kind of big thinking in the classroom, not least through the things we place an emphasis on during class discussions.
Flashcards are not just for quotations
I am a flashcard fanatic. I use them all the time in my teaching as well as being the primary way I take notes whilst reading. This first strategy relies on the flashcard to help students to think big, releasing it from the expectation that it’s a repository for last-minute quotation revision.
It’s simple, really: write onto flashcards a series of big questions or critical positions. Place these under the visualiser as a way to prompt and scaffold debate.
Here are some examples from an A Level class studying The Great Gatsby and its depiction of love:
Here are some more from my teaching of The History Boys, but notice, here, I’ve added more scaffolding by providing sentence cues that might help students make their discussion a little more targeted and rigorous:
The basic idea, then, is incredibly straightforward: write some interesting critical positions on flash cards, put them under the visualiser, and discuss them with the class. But, I find it works really well, and especially in this exact format, for a few reasons:
- They are written specifically to be debatable and contentious, so students feel a lot more able to argue or challenge the idea and each other. The fact it is written down on a card and not spoken or asked by the teacher somehow, seems to neutralise the question, making it easier to argue with and through it.
- The exercise is framed not as ‘what do you think personally?’ (although in many other scenarios this is a great question) but rather ‘do the texts permit such a position to be sustained?’ or ‘do the texts seem to challenge these positions? Why? How do you know?’ This roots any discussion explicitly in textual detail and ensures students are activating their knowledge of the text in order to marshal a point of view about whether it upholds or challenges the given position. It’s both big and small; micro and macro.
- As the activity is framed around whether or not the text challenges or upholds the position, the ensuing discussion is varied and rich, with different students reading the same text in different ways and therefore arriving at different conclusions. What is great here is that the same quotations are being used, but to arrive at a different way of thinking. All of this framed in terms of collective discussion and exploration.
- The physical flexibility of the visualiser and flash card mean you can swap these cards in and out in response to the conversation. If it’s going well then keep it under. If discussion is drying up then switch another under. Move back and forth. Place two under the visualiser to compare similar or different positions at the same time.
- Of course, the simplicity of the task makes it possible to surround it with other useful strategies: show the card and everyone writes first; paired discussion before and after; write a summary of the discussion after it has taken place; use a card to write a more extended analysis, and so on.
- It serves a practical function. What do you do if a lesson has ended, but the bell hasn’t yet sounded? Well, keep a pack of these cards with you, get them out, and start an interesting and rich discussion. Simple.
What makes this really powerful, I think, is its simplicity, both to use and produce, as well as the intellectual rigour it can yield. Low cost, high impact.
Bigger and Bigger Questions
Many years ago I taught a standalone speaking module to Year 9. The idea was to teach the class a topic over a few lessons and to then help them to prepare a short presentation on a related question. The specific choice of ‘what’ to teach was left totally up to the teacher, allowing for some really interesting and stimulating lessons.
For the last couple of years that I ran this module, my chosen topic was the discipline of ‘English Literature’ itself. Setting aside five lessons, my aim was to expose students to some of the most interesting debates within literary studies that they otherwise wouldn’t really encounter until A Level or perhaps even beyond.
Each lesson was based around five big questions, each central to the disciplinary traditions of English.
- What is literature?
- Where does English as a discipline come from?
- What is an author?
- What is the canon?
- Why do we read so much Shakespeare?
In the lessons, I would begin by posing these questions and we would then explore them together. Our wide-angled lens had zoomed right out, no longer focussed on a single text or even a particular form or genre, but the study of English itself.
For the presentation, I handed students a sheet with ten questions on it. They could select and present on whichever they liked.
- What is literature?
- What is the difference between literary and non-literary language?
- Why are some books read and studied but others are not?
- Is an author’s life important when reading and studying literature?
- What is the difference between good and poor-quality literature?
- Is a translation of a text a different text?
- Does literature have to have a meaning or a message to be literature?
- Should a book ever be banned?
- Why is Shakespeare so popular?
- Is the meaning of a work of literature decided by the author?
We then spent several lessons planning, drafting, editing and preparing, readying ourselves for day of the presentations. One student talked about whether a book should ever be banned (who gets to decide and why were they imbued with such authority?). Another explored the difference between literary and non-literary language, bringing us back to a conversation in our first lesson about defamiliarisation and the Russian Formalists. Another student had opted for the same topic, this time discussing the work of Kenneth Goldsmith who famously transcribed word for word a series of traffic reports. At what point, if ever, does this become ‘literary language’?
We then moved on to discuss the difference between ‘good’ and ‘poor’ quality literature and whether or not a text can be valuable if it’s not original. This student commented on the difference between being ‘inventive’ and ‘original’. We finally ended with the question of whether a translated text is a new text, with someone offering the perfectly placed example of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
It was truly a joy to see a group of Y9s talking about, with authenticity and precision, canon construction, avant-grade American poetics, the defining attributes of literature, and the problems inherent within any syllabus. They certainly went big, leaving the small very far behind.
Whilst both of these offer two very different examples, they’re united by a common aim: helping students to move beyond the detail to grasp the full richness of everything our discipline has to offer.