Thursday, 22 August 2013

Why do some teachers hate teaching modern, accessible teenage literature?

Will my students warm to Stone Cold
Quite possibly not.  But I for one did when I read it back in June 2012.  Whether it bears a full 6 weeks of intense re-reading, analysis, character dissection and related tasks remains to be seen.  And I shall see it come September (I'll let you know).  

For I, among many other teachers, will be teaching this fabulous book to classes of 13/14 year olds, the objective of which will be to explore narrative voice, story-telling in multiple voices, plot development, characterisation and (most importantly in my humble opinion,) honing of reading skills and fostering reading for pleasure.  It is after all, a gripping tale which should catch the imagination of most teenagers.  

However, I seem to be alone among teachers in my fondness for this book and my high expectations of what my students will gain from it.  The main bone of contention, as far as I can tell, is that teaching this book effectively means the 'dumbing down' of the novel in classrooms.  Indeed, this particular book does seem to be reserved for the 'lower ability' classes in schools where pupils are streamed according to the very narrow measure of academic attainment.  But I take issue with this particular book as being less worthy in a literary sense than, for example, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas or Holes (both of which have as their protagonists similarly naive and unprepossessing teenage boys) which are taught it seems, without such disparaging attitudes.  

There are two striking sylistic techniques in this novel that would be interesting to explore with students.  That of multiple narrative voices (the story is told in the first person by two separate characters), and the use of perspective of time (the child narrator is telling the story from a later point in his life, in a similar way to Dickens' narrative by Pip in Great Expectations).  This provides much 'fodder' for the classroom as Swindells uses visual techniques as well as linguistic ones to identify each narrator; they each have their own distinct font, one always has a chapter title while the other doesn't.  Linguistically, Swindells has given each voice a distinctive vocabulary and tone. 

As for subject matter, Stone Cold addresses the issue of homelessness and its associated risks; dramatically here those risks include murder by a crazed serial killer.  Fantastic!  There are passages full of suspense, dramatic irony is everywhere, there are gory bits and there's even a love interest woven in amongst the drudgery of cold and hunger which are ever-present in Link's (the protagonist's) life on the streets.  

The teaching and learning activities seem endless and I'm excited about teaching this book in the classroom.  So I'm trying to get my head around the reasons why I'm in the minority here.  

I have of course considered the option that my keenness is simply to do with my idealistic, naive outlook - I am after all, hardly what you'd call a seasoned teacher.  But I feel the gulf here is to do with more than that.  I think it boils down, simply, to literary snobbery. 

Our dear Michael Gove has already put it about that kids should be reading more Dickens and the like, and I have no issue with that as such - Great Expectations and Oliver Twist are among my all time faves.  But such literature should not be forced upon children at the expense of something more contemporary, more 'accessible', that they might enjoy more.  Variety is the spice of life is it not?  People did not stop writing brilliant books at the end of the Victorian era.  And great authors have always appealed to the masses, not the few elite.  

I have decided not to get dragged down by those who would complain about being forced to teach this book.  All teachers of English will have to teach books they don't personally like.  This is a fact.  I for one am dreading the time when I may have to teach something I hate (I mention no authors or texts here you notice.  Diplomacy.).  But when I do, I hope I will be able to distance myself enough from my own personal preferences to be able to deliver exciting and engaging lessons to my students and, equally importantly, to avoid subjecting my colleagues to demotivating, spirit-crushing monologues.  

I hope. 

1 comment:

  1. In light of quite an overwhelming amount of support and agreement from teachers, I feel I should add an afterword here:

    This book is clearly loved by many teachers other than myself, and more than that, it is enjoyed by many students too. A teacher who can convey a passion for the book (even if they fake it) will no doubt enjoy a more positive reception from their class.

    Thank you to all who have shared your love of this book with me. And thank you to all who have helped with suggestions and resources for teaching it. United we stand.