For as long as I’ve been an English teacher, I’ve been more than happy to admit and tell anyone who will listen that there are many, many great aspects to our role. There is, however, a double-edged sword which goes with teaching the world’s greatest literature: you don’t get to finish it.
Countless times, I’ve seen teachers cover only ‘key chapters’ from texts such as Great Expectations or use short extracts (complete with 700-word limit). There are positives to this (a plethora of texts can be looked at in the same timeframe and the cultural capital students engage with), but obvious drawbacks.
On top of this, as I grow older (and wiser?), it’s not as easy as it once was to identify texts that students find engaging. Cracking jokes about MySpace and David Beckham’s new haircut (whilst analysing an extract on Channel 4’s now defunct Big Brother) stony faced youngsters look back. So, I decided it might be better to teach the same skills in different ways. Texts are the lifeblood of English, but with students more and more turning to other formats, how can we keep up? Below are other types of media which can be used to engage students who may not love literature as their English teachers do:
A wonderful medium to work in, mainly because there is so much opportunity here: teaching comparison using historical and modern photographs; a regional stimulus for creative writing; covering inference and deduction through the ambiguity or mystery contained within a photo – there are so many possibilities, AND images are covered under the CLA licence. This can be most successful with asking students to volunteer their own photos (with the obvious safeguarding caveats) – have them take photos of their neighbourhood or of a place of significance and this can easily become the focus of a lesson.
The sheer volume of adverts which can used as resources within the classroom is mindboggling. From the infamous Kit Kat panda advert which can be used for creative writing or in evaluating how a reader may think/ feel having seen it, or even to discuss inference and deduction in adverts from years gone by here and here (why is the man completing scientific work and the women cleaning? Why is the male the voice over as the woman dusts? What does this tell us about attitudes in the 1950s and 1960s?), there is a wealth of content out there.
With so many young people happily proclaiming they don’t know anything about politics (or care for that matter), a ‘hook’ to re-engage students could well be using historical news footage to show them how major events have shaped the world we live in. Using archive websites such as British Pathe, the Critical Past website or the BBC’s archive website can be wonderful examples of events from the past which echo through to today. For example, using news footage from Britain joining the EU, winning the World Cup or the ‘Great Storm’ of 1987 (think Michael Fish maintaining all will be well) are all great examples of engaging with the past to engage with the future.
Music and lyrics
Lyrics have been used more and more frequently over the last 20 years to get students to engage with poetry and with how language can be used to develop a narrative or an emotional response. What is done less frequently, is analysing the music itself in conjunction with the lyrics – how is the singer singing those words? How are they saying the lyric? What emotion can we infer from their voice/ their actions in the music video/ an interview that was published after the song came out (context!)? It’s easy to analyse some Stormzy or Adele lyrics and discuss these with students, but to fully engage? Look at context; look at music videos; look at tone and emotion. This will give students a better background when beginning to look at exam style content.
So, all of the above have been tried, and you still have that itch to use a text – what do you do? Well, the obvious answer is to use texts that students engage with on a daily basis and actually can’t stop reading: fan fiction. With fan fiction websites/ apps like Wattpad becoming so popular to the point that they are now not only publishing texts, but having these developed into films, this could well be the future of teenage reading. With that being the case, why aren’t we harnessing this more? There could also be the opportunity that we, as practitioners, will learn something as well!
Hopefully, the above will give plenty of ideas and alternatives to the traditional text and engage some students along the way. If not, well, we’ll always have Great Expectations.
About the Author
Jonny Kay is Head of English and Maths at Hartlepool College of Further Education. He has previously worked as an English Teacher and Head of Department in KS3/4 and tweets @jonnykayteacher . He also regularly blogs at www.thereflectiveteacher.co.uk
Disclaimer: Please note that this blog post should not be considered as legal advice and should not be relied on when determining whether a particular use of work would infringe copyright.