I have been inspired to deviate from my planned blog post this week, due to events that have taken place. I have been shocked, not just by the death of George Floyd, but also some of the comments and remarks I have seen on social media over the last few days. For example, I have come across people who think that “Black Lives Matter” is a racist movement, prioritising the lives of black people over white people. I find it very alarming that some people have misinterpreted the Black Lives Matter slogan so badly, but it highlights how important education on this topic is.
All teachers of children have the opportunity to influence the lives of the young people we come into contact with. It is not our job or right to tell them what opinions to have, or to give them political views. But we do have a responsibility to give them the information and opportunities that will allow them to make informed judgements about what is going on in the world.
English teachers are lucky, as we are the gatekeepers of literature, which is one of the most powerful tools there is for allowing students to broaden their horizons. Through literature, children can travel to any place in the world, or any time in history. By connecting with characters, they begin to get a much deeper understanding of the human costs of events in history. And this is particularly the case with racism.
A lot of my classroom teaching career has been spent in predominantly white schools, and this means that often the children I have taught have only a limited understanding of what discrimination means. I often began my lesson on Crooks in Of Mice and Men with an experiment. I would inform students that from now on, students in the class with brown eyes could not sit with students with blue eyes. Students with blue eyes were allowed to choose where they sat in the classroom. Students with blue eyes were allowed to go to lunch early. Students with blue eyes would all get an automatic merit at the end of every lesson. And so on. After a little while, they tended to work out what I was getting at, and what blue eyes and brown eyes really represented. But the point was, it gave them an insight into what it was like to be discriminated against everyday for something that you had no control over.
When I was teaching To Kill a Mockingbird, I added in an extra rule, which was that if a student with blue eyes accused a student with brown eyes of doing something wrong, the student with blue eyes would automatically be believed. This therefore launched the students right into the social injustice at the heart of the novel, and gave them an instant connection and sense of empathy with Tom Robinson’s plight.
These initial connections only deepen the further students get into the stories we are exploring. It opens up discussions in the classroom, for students of all abilities. Sometimes the students who are supposedly “low ability” are the ones who come up with the most perceptive insights. I did a lesson a few years ago on the Sainsburys World War One Christmas advert, set in the trenches. My “bottom set” class was the only class who really got it, and understood the message that the British soldier and the German soldier were no different to each other, and this is what allows them to connect. When you give teenagers the right materials, and ask them the right questions, they can really surprise you with empathy and insight beyond their years.
This is why I will never stop being an advocate for getting teenagers reading, and now more than ever it is so important to make sure they look at the world with an open mind. We absolutely cannot afford to write them off as lazy and unmotivated. It is our job to inspire them. Yes, we cannot force teenagers to read, but we can offer them materials that will engage them, and help them on their journey. This is why I will never support the decision to only include British writers on the GCSE English Literature syllabus. To me, it is missing the point of literature. Its power is to give young people access to a world outside of their own, often narrow, world. To realise that the refugee child in their class has endured experiences beyond their worst nightmares. Or that there are parts of the world where it is still considered unnecessary to educate a girl. Or that in 2020, black African Americans can make up 14% of the country’s population, but 23% of fatal police shootings. Our next generation cannot be expected to change the injustices of the world, if we do not lead the way. And the greatest tool we have is not violence and retribution, but education.
For a list of some relevant books you could recommend to your teenager, as well as support, advice and tips for secondary parents, make sure to join my free Facebook community: Flying High - Helping Your Secondary Child Flourish.