English teachers: bound to necessity?

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English in Education, Summer 2017

Being a good teacher of English (or any other subject) requires not only skill – the craft or techne required to achieve a desired outcome – but also wider understanding, or episteme.  Plato associated episteme with a freedom of intelligence, while (according to Damon Young) techne in the Greek polis “was a kind of knowledge associated with people who are bound to necessity”.

English teachers often resent being bound to necessity. Bethan Marshall writes in her conclusion to Testing English: “Despite over 150 years of battle, English teachers are still trying to assess English in a way that makes sense to them.”   Given current circumstances, it’s not surprising that much of the research presented in the new (Summer 2017) issue of English in Education concerns episteme rather than techne.

  • Paul Tarpey reconsiders John Dixon’s “personal growth” model of English in relation to its current manifestations.
  • Nicholas Stock explores the rhetoric of England’s new GCSE English examinations.
  • Jonathan Glazzard examines the “phonics check” for England’s five year olds in relation to various theories of reading.
  • Paul Gardner compares the discourses of English in England and Australia.

In practice, of course, the two kinds of knowledge interrelate.  Margaret Merga’s large-scale survey of children’s reading motivations and interests has direct relevance to classroom practitioners.   Jonathan Monk draws on cultural history and theory and Zadie Smith’s novel NW when preparing his students to write personally about their experience of the city.

Another theme of this issue is the importance of the personal and authentic in the daily work of teaching and learning.   Trevor Millum’s poem “Class Accents” suggests the complex nature of student and teacher voice.

The book reviews offer a conjunction of episteme and techne.  Urszula Clark reviews  Giovanelli and Clayton’s Knowing About Language: Linguistics and the Secondary English Classroom, while  Victoria Elliott reviews Skidmore and Murakami’s Dialogic Pedagogy. 

Foucault used episteme to define what might be called the epistemological unconscious of a community of practice, and he insisted that the essential political problem is to try to change our “political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth”.  This issue argues the importance of bringing together episteme and techne in the experience of English teachers: a consummation devoutly to be wished in present circumstances.

John Hodgson

Members of NATE will receive their printed copy of English in Education shortly.   To join NATE, see sidebar.

 

 

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Discovering Literature – digital resources for Romantics and Victorians

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by Moyra Beverton

Resources for learning have a different meaning since the digital revolution, which has to some extent democratised access. Teachers and students can now explore whole archives of text, sound, image and moving image.

Some digitised archives stand out because of a concerted effort to focus on learning. The British Library has collaborated with educators to make their items both accessible and useable.   Resources are organised in collections and some offer teachers’ notes for guidance.

The Discovering Literature website, aimed at KS4 & KS5, initially focuses on the Romantics and Victorians. Teachers can weave their own path through the plethora of original manuscripts, recordings, articles and artefacts or can take inspiration from the materials on offer for each author and theme. These materials can be used in diverse ways, for example to stretch and challenge the more able, perhaps by clustering activities; as directed work for background research; as a stimulus for speaking and listening assessment, whilst sharing discoveries; or for co-creation of new writing.

Most importantly, students can be guided to wider reading, given enough direction for independent research and sufficient confidence to bring discoveries back to learning in the classroom.

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In making my contribution to the teaching materials, I wanted to address certain issues that have arisen over recent years, as well as current topics such as independent learning, critical thinking and peer- or self-assessment. Anyone who has ever had to tackle issues of inclusivity, differentiation, wider reading, independent learning or accessibility to resources beyond their budget will find a reservoir of materials to suit their needs and save time, as well as a means of teaching their students the rudiments of research practice.

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With the current need to plan work on 19th century literature, opportunities for accessible, independent work can seem remote. Many students could struggle to access the unfamiliar texts; however through the Discovering Literature website they could also begin to contextualise a novel and its writer, for example investigating status and gender. Examples below are from the Teacher Notes for Persuasion:

  • Before examining The Navy List* in some detail, attribute names to students e.g. Charles, William, Edmund etc. Ask them to notice how often their name crops up in the lists. This would work well as a paired learning activity. Which person with their name is earning the most/least?
  • Which names from The Navy List are still in use today? Students could research today’s most popular names* and compare which ones have fallen into disuse, have stayed popular and/or have had a resurgence. This could lead to a discussion on the impact of names on context and vice versa.

Following on from this, the teacher could select a passage that is focused on an aspect of life in the navy and, through close reading, discuss the writer’s connection, motivation or stimulus for using this context. In this way students can contribute their opinion based on their research, thereby increasing their connection to the text, motivating them to read on in pursuit of the narrative or writer’s intentions.

The teacher’s planning for critical analysis remains within familiar territory, yet with little further effort from the teacher or department, the students have had the opportunity to increase their engagement. In addition students can use the website routinely for independent study, either guided by the teacher or making self-selections in pursuit of their own interests.

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* links to suggested external websites are included in the teachers’ notes.