The challenges of a diverse, fulfilling and inspiring English curriculum
Clare Weatherall, Jayne Selway and Ali Goddard-Jones are English teachers who feel passionately about providing students with a diverse, fulfilling and inspiring curriculum for all students. In these 3 think pieces they discuss the challenges that face teachers in creating and delivering an English curriculum which is meaningful yet prepares students for GCSE study. “This is our contribution as members of the English community.”
We need to talk about diversity / Click to Open
Diversity is very much at the vanguard of educational conversations at the moment, driven to the fore by the tragic passing of George Floyd and the subsequent higher elevation of the Black Lives Matter movement in public consciousness.
As part of our everyday role as English teachers, we encourage and develop our students’ ability to read, to talk and to write. We spend time researching and resourcing approaches that will allow students to actively engage with the learning.We spend time creating lessons where we differentiate for ability, for outcome, for assessment. But how much time do we spend creating a classroom environment where every single person is seen and heard?
As a Bristol collective of schools, we are fortunate to have students from a wide range of diverse backgrounds. But how well are we serving them? How well are we ensuring that – through our curriculum – all these students are able to connect with the topics, the themes, the stories that they encounter? How well are we demonstrating to all these students – through our curriculum – that their lives matter?
There cannot be a teacher among us who does not deplore the inequitable division of our society in Britain.
We as teachers are in a unique and very privileged position. What we deliver in our classrooms has a great impact on developing minds. And for that reason, we should very carefully consider how we use that privilege.
Ultimately, our job is to create well-rounded, educated global citizens.
And without a concerted effort to teach a powerfully diverse curriculum, we will miss the chance to educate our students about how they fit and how they are connected in our society.
In her TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” author and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes that: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”
The talk raises the question of cultural awareness and its importance in understanding people and the world at large. Only hearing a single story about another person or country results in vital misunderstandings; creates a disconnect between people of different cultures and also results in an imbalance of power with the dominant culture in ascendance.
Adichie ends her talk by saying: “Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity […] when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise”.
So what does this mean for us as teachers?
Basically, we need to utilise our unique and privileged position to ensure that the single story is not in ascendance. We can eradicate bias in the curriculum. We can educate all our students to have a comprehensive and balanced understanding of British history. We can help them develop an appreciation and mutual respect for diverse perspectives, contributions and cultures.
And particularly for us teachers of English, we need to think about what we are teaching, since so much of what we teach in English is about telling stories. Booker prize winning author Bernadine Evaristo writes that “Fiction is […] an incredibly effective way of delving into human psychology and behaviour and thereby deepens our understanding of each other”.
We need to create a curriculum that is a meaningful and balanced representation of our students who are, after all, a microcosm of Britain. We need to think about how we are packaging it, shaping it and uncovering it. For as Bennie Kara (Deputy Head at Bemrose School) says, “Diversity can’t be a bolt-on to your curriculum.”
Embracing the concept of diversity in education is important in terms of creating a culture of unconditional acceptance. When a student feels unwelcome or alienated for any reason, they cease to flourish as a student and as a person. Conversely, when a student is able to recognise aspects of their identity in the content they are presented with, they are then more able to connect with the topics and concepts at hand, enabling them to more actively engage. Kelly Hogan, a professor at the University of North Carolina, observes that “feelings of isolation weaken a student’s ability to retain information and thus developing a sense of belonging could provide the support to thrive.” Therefore, sending the right messages to students is critical not only in creating a classroom culture of unconditional acceptance but also in supporting achievement for all students.
But we also need to be careful how we go about it. Diversity in the curriculum is not just about including ethnicity, women, LGBTQ+, religion etc at the expense of the current one we have. Aurora Reid in “The researchEd Guide to The Curriculum (2020) writes: “When considering the English curriculum, we cannot erase writers of colour but nor should we deny the foundational place in the world of Dickens, Hardy and Bronte. We need our students to read Jane Eyre but we need them to read Wide Sargasso Sea too. We have to teach all of it: what has been remembered and what has been forgotten and how this came to be.”
Good literature should be one of the main guiding principles for our English curriculum no matter who the author. Yet we should be mindful of our selection of texts for as Adichie says: “Stories can be used to empower and to humanise”.
Despite the constraints we are under through the reality of the content of the National Curriculum – bound as it is by its colonial and political agenda, and driven by the need to achieve success at GCSE – we could still select texts that reflect our demographic realities. For example, at KS4 why select ‘Macbeth’ and not ‘Merchant of Venice’, which deals with issues surrounding the representation of women, prejudice and intolerance? At KS3, where are we telling the stories of counter perspectives, achievements and contributions to British society?
We at the CLF need to think more deeply about what we’re teaching because if we don’t, then we’re not teaching well. Our CLF English curriculum should explicitly seek to distance itself from discrimination through the active inclusion of texts which challenge the single story, otherwise we perpetuate those vital misunderstandings which “make[s] our recognition of our equal humanity difficult” (Adichie).
As we prepare our students to live in a diverse world, let us remember this from Nelson Mandela: “Education is the greatest weapon which you can use to change the world.”
English Teacher at HWA
Curriculum and Cultural Capital Challenged: The persistence of the single story / Click to Open
The world in which we live has abruptly changed. With constant reminder that we are living in “unprecedented times” it is hardly surprising that the discourses we use to shape and make sense of our world are changing. The coronavirus has forced us to examine many aspects of our personal and professional lives, it has taken away our freedoms, in some cases our jobs, in some cases our lives. So, as lockdown begins to ease, where does this leave us? How has this affected our sense of who we are and how we see our profession? How can we continue to work towards creating wider opportunities for the young people we teach in a time where disadvantage is increasing?
We hope these think pieces will encourage debate and discussion about how we feel as educators about what we teach and how we feel about our English curriculum. I write this piece as an English teacher with 25 years of experience working across a variety of schools in different social, cultural and economic contexts. I write this piece as a white woman who has been through a British education system. My educational experience is particularly relevant to my view of the world, the way I see things, my “way of seeing” Berger (1972). Arguably, as a privileged white woman living in a rich country, I have had a multitude of opportunities at my feet and many options. But what did I learn about English Literature and how similar or different was my experience to that of the students I teach some 25 years later?
In my view, as English teachers we are up against it. The curriculum at KS 4 is predominantly white and male, it is Eurocentric and privileges the traditional canon in terms of set texts and examination papers. Is it that some exam boards just pay lip surface to diversity by including a few poets from different cultures and traditions in their anthologies? AQA also include Meera Syal’s Anita and Me as a modern text option but if we are looking for diversity then we will be disappointed, it is limited. We have to challenge this.
Edexcel made some changes to their syllabus in September 2019 with the addition of two plays: The Empress by Tanika Gupta and Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah (adapted for the stage by Lemn Sissay) and two novels: Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin and Boys Don’t Cry by Malorie Blackman. These texts were not on the original syllabus could be seen as a sign that there is an appetite for change and some resulting action. By positioning these texts on the syllabus something important is being said. It is significant. These changes have the potential to affect how we define English Literature and what is “in” and what is “out” in terms of syllabus requirements. It is an important change that we welcome.
When I reflect upon my own education, my exposure to writers who weren’t just white and male only really began at A level. In the 1980’s the curriculum at GCSE wasn’t diverse. Luckily for me I was introduced to Alice Walker and Maya Angelou at Post 16 and was encouraged to explore more than the traditional English Literary canon. This was because I had a teacher who was inspiring, she wanted us to read stories that would broaden our view of the world, stories that represented a diversity of writers. The college I attended had a diverse student population and looking back I realise she must have been aware of the need to engage her students. She wanted us to learn to share more than just one “story.”
At university the curriculum became much broader and deeper. Voices which had previously been marginalised were now privileged and given centre stage. If you look at the modules offered in many universities today, particularly the “newer” ones then you will find a plethora of options- from Black American Literature to Post-colonial writers and Writing in Multi-cultural Britain. It is my view that we need to take inspiration from these offers. Why should this level of diversity only be open to students at undergraduate level?
It is widely documented that the changes Gove brought to the GCSEs in 2015 really did “white wash” the entire curriculum and the overall experience for students. This brings us to consider what is important in designing a curriculum and who decides it. As Christine Counsell (2018) points out, “it’s all about power.” What should stay and what should go? Government ministers have decided what should stay, they hold the power. Texts that students are examined on, traditionally Shakespeare, Pre 19th century romantics, modern playwrights and poets of “note” are considered to be essential for ensuring that we are building students “cultural capital.” This justification is really interesting. Whose cultural capital are we serving?
As teachers we are told that students need, “Cultural capital” – we must help them to “have more of it.” Cultural capital was defined by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu originally in 1970s, it was a way of describing how power in society was transferred and maintained. In education we have been conditioned to believe that if students have more of this thing called “cultural capital” then they will do better. They will be better equipped to answer their exam questions and therefore their life chances are enhanced. Of course, anyone can see how this is beneficial. It is our job as educators to help students pass exams. It is our job to help them succeed. We need to “teach them the culture” that will enhance their chances of “capital.” But what if that culture is so far from anything that is meaningful or engaging for a student? What if that definition of culture is narrow and confining?
The work of the Cultural Learning Alliance brings many central questions about cultural capital to the fore. Quite simply, it challenges it. It challenges the current definition adopted by Ofsted about what might constitute the “best” of what is thought and said as there is a danger that it could be limiting, historical and fixed. Who defines what the best is and with what criteria? Can’t “the best” change and involve? Culture is dynamic and organic, surely our education system should acknowledge this? Surely our English curriculum should reflect this?
It is my view that we need to make the most of the freedom that we have at KS 3 to provide an exciting and diverse curriculum. We need to exploit this in English. But what of KS 4? Quite simply, we need to fight for change. We need to make our voices heard at national level so that the curriculum going forward is in our students’ best interests. The curriculum needs to build relevant “cultural capital” for living in our time. Texts should be meaningful for students, they should light the fire for English and help our students to explore their sense of self.
As a community of English teachers we need to make our voices heard. We need to find ways of working with the “giants” the hold the power, OFQUAL, exam boards and DFE. As a multi-academy trust we have an important place in the educational landscape in the South West. The shape of the English GCSE in Literature and Language has to speak to our students. They have to be able to find something within it which speaks to them. It is only through sharing a multitude of stories that we can begin to explore our own identities and begin to write our own.
Senior SLE for English
Avoiding the single story / Click to Open
It’s time to pull our ideas together.
We are a culturally diverse Multi-Academy Trust delivering an English curriculum that is aligned. What challenges might this present us with? We believe that all of our students must be prepared for life in a multi-cultural society where they are given opportunities to explore their identity and are encouraged to express themselves through language, inspired by high quality literature and non-fiction texts.
So we will keep talking.
We will keep the conversations going in order to find ways together to address the change we all crave.
Because when the talking begins to throw a light on where we have been and where we are now, then we can start to take the necessary steps to where we need to go.
Clare Weatherall, Jayne Selway, Ali Goddard-Jones